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Film Review: ‘Come, Together’

Variety logo Variety 3/23/2017 Maggie Lee
© Provided by Variety

If you think the unemployed Japanese salaryman in “Tokyo Sonata” has it rough sitting in a park all day, pity the laid-off Korean manager in “Come, Together” who takes to hitting his head against the ceiling — a sardonic metaphor for the Sisyphean struggle to survive ultra-competitive Korean society. Delivering an assuredly executed drama with fiery performances, maverick writer-director Shin Dong-il (“Bandhobi”) observes the breakdown of a bourgeois family under financial pressures with characteristic mordant humor, while suggesting that hope and succor are not entirely out of reach. With the decline of the lower-middle class becoming a world phenomenon, the protagonists’ pain feels acutely universal, resonating beyond niche Asian markets and potentially landing small-screen deals in select territories.

The Parks couldn’t be a more ordinary family: Beom-gu (Im Hyeon-gook) works in middle management, his wife Mi-young (Lee Hye-eun) sells credit card services, and their only daughter Ha-na (Chae Bin) anxiously awaits the results of her college entrance exams. However, everything falls apart when Beom-gu is summarily fired by the company he served for 18 years. Shin offers a riveting study of the debilitating impact of unemployment on the male ego, from Beom-gu’s intensifying violent streak to his stealthy mutilation of Mi-young’s meticulously pruned potted plants — a droll symbol of the family’s brittle respectability and unity.

A daily thumping noise from the tenant above becomes the last straw. When Beom-gu goes upstairs to complain, he ends up befriending his neighbor (Kim Jae-rok), an out-of-work academic who exerts a strange hold on him. As the men hang out in a Beatles-themed bar (which accounts for the title), the plot takes a swerve into the surreal, but the screenplay by Shin and Han Ji-soo never loses its grip on the social reality it depicts. For instance, when the cause of the noise is revealed, it pinpoints the frustration and absurdity of striving to meet performance targets.

Yet, what proves most compelling is Mi-young’s reactions to her new role as sole breadwinner. Her fawning, often dodgy sales pitches underline her desperation, exacerbated by the equally unethical tactics of rival Eun-jung. As she develops an all-consuming hatred of Eun-jung, her envy of the latter’s beauty, privileged background, and rumored affair with the section chief hints at a deep-seated inferiority complex that bristles at injustices beyond office politics. Shin vividly recreates a toxic working environment with poison-dipped gossipy dialogue and unsavory details of how a pyramid sales model operates.

Things aren’t necessarily easy for Ha-na either. Placed 18th on the waiting list to get into Korea U., she’s acutely aware than her future hangs on the possibility of other candidates dropping out. Her distracted attitude, interrupted by a neurotic jump each time her phone rings, underlines a psychological burden too hefty for someone her age to bear. When she looks up the girl who’s just before her in line, their encounter is ambivalently fraught with jealousy, self-pity, and sweet, girlish fun. The tension escalates when their day-out chillingly turns into a potential date-rape scenario, and Ha-na’s behavior ushers in her coming-of-age as well as a turning point in her relationship to her parents.

The Parks’ moral fiber is severely tested as the family’s devolution impacts them and others, yet the screenplay upends expectations by showing how ordinary peoples’ innate decency triumphs even when the going gets rough. Some viewers may find the dramatic turnabout unconvincingly upbeat, but the credibility of the characters’ actions is borne out by their personal growth, laid in baby steps over time by the script, which takes pains to eschew the mawkishness of Korean drama and the bleak nihilism of Korean indies. The spirit of the film is embodied by Ha-na’s BFF Yu-gyeong, who makes a tough living to finance her wanderlust, holding her head high despite prejudice against college dropouts.

Most of the film’s naked emotional power comes from the performances, which run the gamut of violence and anguish without the roles ever losing their humanity. As Mi-young, Lee is sometimes like a ticking bomb, but elicits sympathy even when she’s least likable.

The filmmaking style is mostly plain, although DP Kim Bow-ram’s tight shots convey the nervy mood shifts between claustrophobia and intimacy. Production designer Ha Ji-hyun’s wide range of city locations capture the cosmopolitan ambience of Seoul, which helps the finale, set in the autumnal glow of the countryside, achieve a rugged lyricism.

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