The Things She Can’t Avoid in the City (PARK Jee-youn, 2008)
Reviewed by Darcy PAQUET
If feature films typically tell stories, short films often do not. Short animated films in particular, with their heightened potential for visual expression, may foreground other elements and let story fade into the background. Some films present a new way of seeing, or illustrate a particular point of view, while others try to communicate emotion in a more direct way.
Park Jee-Youn’s The Things She Can’t Avoid in the City is not so much about communicating feelings, as it is about capturing and expressing lived experience. It is about the experience of moving to the city, and living in a poor community. It is about desire, relationships, and the end of a relationship. This 13-minute film may have been inspired by the director’s own experiences, but its strange imagery and surreal touches do seem to have successfully captured something universal about the lives of young urban women.
To communicate experience, we don’t simply present scenes from daily life. We choose moments, scenes or images that represent or capture the essence of something broader. Probably the most memorable image of this film is of the protagonist’s home pulled up into the air by a giant crane (as part of the forced evacuation and redevelopment of a poor neighborhood), and left hanging there (when the workers of the company carrying out the redevelopment go on strike). Viewers familiar with the heavy-handed and sometimes brutal redevelopment of poor communities in Seoul over the past several decades will appreciate the black humor inherent in the main character’s absurd predicament. But there is more to that image. Swinging back and forth in the air, the house is a precarious place to live, but the protagonist (who seems at times almost weightless, able to be pushed up into the air by the force of a hair dryer) makes herself at home.
However the arrival of her (estranged) boyfriend causes the home to tilt out of balance. Their relationship is reaching its end, but still driven by hunger, he comes to her and eats the pies that she cooks him. Unable to approach each other without having the home tilt dangerously to one side, they remain in a kind of limbo state. They are neither together, nor apart.
Lived experience, while often vivid, is messy and unpredictable. It doesn’t easily align itself into neat patterns from which we can draw conclusions. This film too feels uneven, and sometimes abrupt in moving from one scene or idea to another. The ending in particular is jarring, but this is entirely appropriate for a film about precarious lives which are pushed here and there by the strong, arbitrary forces of the city. As the title suggests, the protagonist is at the mercy of the city, but she carries herself with grace and dignity as she copes with life’s challenges.
Darcy PAQUET is the founder of the website Koreanfilm.org and the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (2009, Wallflower Press). A former correspondent for Variety and a contributor to the film magazine Cine21, he currently works as a consultant for the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy and the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain. He also recently appeared as a supporting actor in Im Sang-soo's The Taste of Money (2012). A native of Massachusetts, Darcy has been living in Seoul since 1997.