The humans within the city
The first thought that crosses one’s mind while watching the 6 ½ minute short CiTY by studio YOG is, “Why is everyone naked?” But the answer soon reveals itself. As the many residents of an apartment complex turn off alarm clocks, shower, blowdry their hair, get dressed, crack eggs, apply mascara, and slip into heels, we can tell from the sound effects and the movement of the bodies what is happening. But onscreen, only the roughly drawn figures of the bodies themselves are visible. With even the walls and doors and ground outside invisible, it appears as if unclothed bodies are floating in midair.
We follow three bodies down an elevator, and then we are outside on the city streets. The arrival of a bus is signaled by the movement of many seated bodies floating forwards in unison. The sight of a subway is even more dramatic, with its closely packed bodies in seven separate moving cars.
The film’s music grows more plaintive for a remarkable extended shot that takes up about one third of the film’s running time. At first it seems to be a birds eye view of the subway, seen from such a distance that each subway car appears as a single straight line. But the directors gradually fill out the landscape, first with city streets and then with distant skyscrapers. Of course, all we see of the skyscrapers are the bodies inside. It is when a window cleaner moves down into the frame that we realize we are in a skyscraper ourselves, looking out at the city.
At night, people begin to empty out of the office buildings, and we find ourselves driving along the street, where seated naked bodies float through the air. After a brief glimpse of the subway, from up close this time, we are back to the apartment, where sleep eventually pulls the bodies down and makes each of them immobile.
This unique visualization by directors Kim Young-Geun and Kim Ye-Young may have its closest analogue in the “city symphonies” of the silent film era. Works such as Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) similarly present a single day in the life of a city, from morning to nightfall. These early films utilized the comparatively new technology of the movie camera to make us see our environment from unexpected and shocking new perspectives. At the same time, the films reveled in the technology, urban planning and architectural design of the modern metropolis. In one sense, City presents only the human element of the city. But this film too reveals how architecture and city planning affects the movement and daily lives of people living in cities.
The sight of all these bodies, grouped into strange moving patterns, strikes one as highly unnatural, but also intriguing and visually arresting. The city seems to be its own organism, made up of countless small moving parts. It’s not entirely unpleasant, this strange new perspective on urban life. But it gives the individual viewer plenty to think about.
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.