Film Review: MicrohabitatEmotionally complex and bittersweet.
Wistful and at times bittersweet, Jeon Go-Woon’s Microhabitat is a quiet miniature masterpiece. Having its Canadian premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival, it has the potential to get lost among splashier films, but those seek it out will be richer for having done so.
In a happy bit of film festival serendipity, Microhabitat would make a perfect—if somewhat depressing—double bill with Japanese director Yoko Yamanaka’s Amiko, also screening at Fantasia. That film is about the boldless of adolescence, personified in the figure of a teenage girl who refuses to let the encroaching realities of adulthood—the compromises that must be made, the dreams that must be abandoned—shake her sense of self.
In Microhabitat, thirtysomething Miso (Lee “Esom” Som) faces that same conundrum,. several years down the line. Jeon, who also wrote the film, deftly drops hints of Miso’s background: that she has no family, that she has a medical condition, that she was driven by necessity to drop out of school. Basically, she’s desperately poor, living hand-to-mouth by taking housecleaning jobs that barely net her enough money to pay the rent.
Then, as these things go, the rent goes up.
All her belongings packed into few suitcases, Miso goes on her own miniature Odyssey. Except she’s not going home, but to the scantest hope of one, bouncing between the houses of her former bandmates in the hopes that she can make enough money for a deposit on a room before her one-time friends’ hospitality runs out and she ends up on the street. Jeon takes us through a subset of Korea’s class system: there’s the striving career woman who literally hooks herself up to an IV just to have enough energy to get through the day, the one-time punk who married a conservative man from a rich family, the man who still lives with his parents and is obsessed with securing a bride, and more. These are characters who have settled themselves into boxes, which makes Miso’s refusal to do so even more striking.
Miso, like Amiko, refuses to sacrifice her dignity for the sake of ease. Her two loves are cigarettes and whiskey; like clockwork, she goes to the bar once a day for this little indulgence that lets her feel human. Unlike Amiko, it’s unclear as to whether she will survive. Literally: she can’t find a place to live, work is dwindling, costs are rising and none of her former friends appear to care all that much about what happens to her. Miko’s Seoul, and many places around the world, is heartless and cruel, weeding out the “unproductive” members of society unwilling to get into lockstep with societal norms. Is Miko's stubborness foolhardy or brave? Jeon provides no easy answers. Miko’s continued resilience is inspiring just as it’s heartbreaking, those two poles coming together in a wallop of a final shot.