Impersonation (Kim Bo-young, 2014)

Reviewed by Darcy PAQUET

The Space Between You and Me

In a film with no dialogue, gestures take the place of words. There is a particular gesture that betrays the feelings of the woman at the center of Kim Bo-young’s Impersonation. Walking busily along the street, she has noticed a certain man walking towards her. Just before he passes by, she reaches up and tucks her hair behind her ear.

It’s a gesture that seeks attention. She wants him to notice her. But he seems completely unaware of her presence, passing by without a sideways glance. During a subsequent encounter, her feelings are even more obvious. She checks herself in the mirror, turns back so that their paths will cross, and at the moment that they pass, repeats the gesture. But once again, it fails to produce a response.

There is something else that clearly does catch the man’s eye. Outside of a pet shop, he lingers staring at the puppies in the window. His smiling eyes meet that of a dog inside, and it is as if they are speaking some private language. On the next day, he passes by a woman who is walking her dog, and he bends down to stroke the animal’s head with an apparent tenderness.

<Impersonation> is not so much about humans and dogs as it is about connections, crossed signals and the space between people. In the animal world, mating rituals are centered around a kind of bragging. Peacocks spread their colorful feathers, and deer lock antlers with their rivals. Humans are less confident, and more cunning. When her natural appearance fails to arouse interest in the man she desires, the woman decides to conform to his tastes. After a discreet online purchase, she disguises herself as someone he will be powerless to ignore. Will an emotional connection follow?

The world of <Impersonation> is monochrome, simplified almost to abstraction. The faces of the characters, with wide foreheads and tiny features, contain but a few expressions. The soundtrack consists of birdsong, heartbeats, footsteps, barking and breathing, but no voices. By keeping the visual and narrative elements of this film so simple, Kim Bo-young sharpens the message and irony of her work.

The last scene of the film, and the startled expression on the woman’s face, is memorable. It seems on the one hand to be delivering a moral about the situation it depicts, yet there is a strangeness and humor to this final scene that complicates its impact. And with that, the film is over: merely two lines for the end credits (Kim made the film herself ), a brief exhalation of music, and a fade to black. <Impersonation> is only just over three minutes long, but it captures something true about the human condition, and the impression it creates is lasting.

Darcy PAQUET is the founder of the website Koreanfilm.org, and the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (2009). He is a delegate for the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain and a programme consultant at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy. He recently launched the Wildflower Film Awards Korea, an annual awards ceremony for Korean independent and low-budget films. He also works occasionally as an actor, most recently in a small role in the SBS drama 3 Days. Darcy has been living in Seoul since 1997.

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