The ‘Presence’ in ‘Absence’ A review of The Empty (2016) by Jeong Dahee
Her room is empty. “Everything is gone. I’ve been left alone again,” the man says. The walls are bare, the furniture all carried away. And yet, the room is not in the slightest bit empty. To be inside this room is to feel the energy of its former state, and the lingering presence of its former inhabitant. It is filled with memories, regrets, associations, and loneliness. It is, in one sense, so full as to be painful. Someone who misses another person might speak of the “pain of absence,” but true absence is painless. It is the continued presence of memories and desire that makes “absence” hard to bear. The paradox of “absence” lies at the heart of Jeong Dahee’s The Empty, in which memories take the shape of worn objects, of books, of strange noises, and of “the dust that used to be you.”
The surreal tone and dreamlike, painterly images of Jeong Dahee’s films, which on occasion recall the work of Magritte, are not so much perspectives on the outside world as they are efforts to see into the human mind. Meaning and symbolism cling to every image although even these meanings do not seem fixed, shifting as the film progresses.
In <The Empty>, nothing we see seems to come from the physical world. Objects and spaces transform before our eyes, in a smooth, bewildering flow. Walls become curtains, and books become suitcases. But there is also a sense of movement, as we repeatedly push through into new, inner spaces that feel ever more intimate.
What is taking place in these inner spaces? Memories are being handled, and moved around. New things are being constructed out of old memories. If there is an antagonist in this film, it is time. Time is said to heal all wounds, and ultimately to erase all memory. The objects that fill the room (and, indeed, the male narrator) clearly feel shaped and marked by the passage of time, but they also seem to possess a certain defiance: a determination to survive the effects of time, and be remembered.
Nonetheless, for the viewer, time is not presented as wholly antagonistic. The final scene is not one of synthesis, to create a sense of closure and help the viewer piece together the film’s meaning. But it does offer a change of perspective, and a sense of new beginnings. The voice of the woman, which appeared briefly at the start of the film, returns at the end. She sits up in bed. The image of a curtain, which has appeared several times throughout the film, is pulled aside, and for the first time a warm whiteness floods the screen. A hint of birdsong, and a woman humming, are the sounds that bring the film to a close.
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.