31 March 2018

Roads to Recognition

My Mirror column:

The deceptively quiet The First Lap takes you on a journey into Korean society. But as with the best films, you might end up meeting yourself.

I often think of films as a way of travelling. A well-crafted film set in a place I’ve never been to has long seemed to me the next best thing to visiting it. As the lights dim in the hall, so does the everyday world around you, until it’s only you and the world on screen. Even better if the film sends its characters on a physical journey; then your mind automatically piggybacks on their experience.

Watching Kim Dae-hwan’s quietly observed Korean feature The First Lap (2017) at the ongoing Habitat Film Festival in Delhi on Friday, I was struck by how much a handheld aesthetic could enhance this sense of vicarious travelling. Ji-young and Su-hyeon live together in a Seoul apartment. As the film begins, they are lying under the covers, contemplating the potential adoption of a cat. Then Ji-young says it’s two weeks late for her period, and a tense silence ensues. The rest of the film unfolds over the next few days, as the couple decide to make two longish trips: driving first to the home of Ji-Young’s parents, and then to the village on the coast where Su-hyeon’s family runs a sashimi eatery.

These journeys involve long sequences on the highway, shot from inside a car. The First Lap is all long takes and realistic silences, with practically no background music. The couple are traversing long distances, and yet we see very little of the country, on these roads. Instead, the film captures perfectly the closed atmosphere inside the car, with the entire focus of both people being on the GPS signal and whether they’ve missed the right exit off the highway. The metaphors are thankfully never underscored, but if I had to put a description to it, I’d say the journey conveys the sense of being stuck as well as in limbo – which could very well describe the couple’s relationship.

Ji-Young works in a broadcasting company, while Su-hyoen is an art teacher vaguely contemplating graduate school. In their early 30s, they’ve been living together six years and seem so stable as to be boring. But the shift from imagining owning a cat together to having a baby seems to throw them into a turmoil that feels worse because it’s largely unspoken. As Su-hyoen’s friend says to him about the need to theorise his paintings, “The work is important, but the words are more important. How you describe it affects everything.”

That anxiety about definitions is certainly on Ji-Young’s mother’s mind – and here the film shows us how travelling takes you full circle. The scene where she brings the rare family meal to a truly awkward halt, by insisting that Ji-Young and Su-hyoen should stop “wasting their time” and get married, will bring many Indian viewers back to their own lives. “Why don’t you behave like other girls and give me a grandchild to show off? I have nothing,” she says, sounding petulant. Then, met by an implacable silence all round, defensive: “Have I said something wrong? I always become the villain.”

Ji-Young’s family seems better-off – her mother works in real estate, they live in a modern house and eat around a Western-style dining table. But it is Su-hyoen’s mother who takes her son’s girlfriend aside to tell her to try living together before any decisions about marriage. “Marriage, it’s nothing more than having to put up with a person for years and years… If you’ve tried it and are ready to do it for the rest of your life, then do it.” And also, chillingly, “Hell is closer than you think.”

The scenes to do with food are among the crucial ways in which one is transported to Korea, with all kinds of talk about the filleting of fish, sweet and sour pork and shochu going down like honey. Yet here too, one is struck by the similarities with a traditional Indian home: the women do all the cooking and serving and pouring, even when Su-hyoen’s mother assumes a working woman might not cook much. The men eat silently and drink till they’re raucous. The women eat later, in the kitchen.

The gendered division of labour is quite clear beyond the home, too. When Su-hyoen has to change a punctured tire in a snowstorm, all Ji-Young can do is brush snow ineffectually off his collar.

It is among the few physical gestures of intimacy between the couple, and characteristically non-intense. Even when Ji-Young sobs, or tells Su-hyoen she’s really scared, he seems unable to summon up anything more than an ineffectual pat on the shoulder, or an unsatisfying sideways hug and a selfie. I waited for Ji-Young to fling her arms around her boyfriend and insist on a real hug. That it never happened felt excruciating, and yet entirely recognizable from our own context of physically non-demonstrative relationships. That’s the thing about true travel; it brings you back home.

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