Film Review: Autumn, Autumn

Quiet, laser-sharp look at life in a remote Korean town, seen through three people.
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Shot with formal rigor but imbued with a disarming candor and empathy, Autumn, Autumn forces viewers to drop preconceptions—about Korea, character-driven dramas, goals in life, even what constitutes a movie.

Set in Chuncheon, a couple of hours northeast of Seoul, writer and director Jang Woo-jin's story unfolds in largely static shots that concentrate on three characters first seen sitting next to each other on a train.

Twenty-something Ji-hyeon (played by Woo Ji-hyeon) is returning from Seoul to what he feels is a dead-end life working in a restaurant. When job interviews fall through, he drifts through town aimlessly, riding a ferry across a reservoir, stumbling through marathon runners blocking a street. One night he calls a former classmate, and for almost ten minutes Jang holds the camera on him as slowly he falls to pieces.

Heung-ju (Yang Heung-ju) and Se-rang (Lee Se-rang) are middle-aged, awkward tourists who have both been to Chuncheon under different circumstances.  Because of the marathon, they have to share an expensive hotel room, Heung-ju sleeping on the floor.

They ride the same ferry and visit the same temple that Ji-hyeon did. They might even stop in the restaurant where Ji-hyeon works. They may admire the scenery, but something's off. Old memories intrude, new expectations fail—something is wrong, maybe many things.

Heung-ju and Se-rang go to another restaurant, Jang framing them in a two-shot at their table, the sun behind them dipping into and out of clouds. For almost 15 minutes the camera watches as in clumsy, groping words they define their pasts and open up to each other. Like Ji-hyeon's phone call, the scene feels real, not acted, and its honesty is heartbreaking.

Jang doesn't provide much narrative information, but packs a lifetime of regret into a single gesture or image. These characters can't figure out what went wrong, no matter how many times they relive the past. And they can't see a future that solves anything.  In a way, it doesn't matter where they are, they would face the same issues in Geneva or Las Vegas. And ultimately it doesn't matter who they are, because their problems afflict everyone.

Robert Duvall staged a similar restaurant scene in Assassination Tango, and it was astonishing to experience the depth of feeling he could achieve once he stripped away all nonsense about plot. Jang may occasionally force connections, or insist that images carry too much metaphorical weight, but his feeling for his characters lifts Autumn, Autumn out of the ordinary.

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