Director: Kim Tae-yong
London Korean Film Festival teaser screening review
Youth and tradition inadvertently collide for a vibrant celebration of life, art, and culture in the boldly eccentric new feature from director Kim Tae-yong. Though its plot entails a trip into the underworld and an old woman nearing the end of her days, Kokdu: A Story of Guardian Angels feels restlessly alive and attuned to the naïve and inquisitive perspectives of its two young protagonists, even as it deconstructs the colourful world of illusions they inhabit. Try to imagine The Wizard of Oz remade as a post-modern indie and you might be halfway there.
Like Dorothy’s trip over the rainbow, the fantastical journey of Sun-min (Kim Su-an) and her younger brother Dong-min (Choi Go) is initiated in part by a cute little dog. The puppy in question is acquired by the two kids in an impulsive trade-off that requires them to give away the shoes of their grandmother (Park Jeong-suk). But when grandmother is suddenly rushed to hospital with a fatal illness, the guilt-ridden siblings embark on a mission to retrieve the shoes that sends them tumbling into the next world.
It is here where Sun-min and Dong-min meet the kokdu, a group of guardians charged with guiding the deceased into the afterlife. When it quickly becomes apparent that the kids are unaware of where they are or where they’re going, Sun-min and Dong-min’s new companions choose to spare the children’s feelings by pretending that they’re headed to the location of the shoes.
The kokdu’s lie is just one form of illusion in a film that’s constantly drawing attention to its own fictionality. The underworld is presented as a lively stage production, complete with musical interludes, and to add a third plane of existence to the feature, Kokdu also brings us backstage to observe the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating the spectacle of the afterlife.
Though the handheld camerawork can often have a deglamourizing effect that enhances the faux-documentary feel of the theatre sequences, Kokdu boasts more than its share of strikingly pretty visuals, both on stage and back in the land of the living. The expansive green fields and forest-covered hills near grandma’s house lend themselves particularly well to a series of stunning landscape shots, but the film really finds its heart when the camera descends to the level of the kids, sharing in their spontaneity, curiosity, and mischief as they explore their neighbourhood and worlds beyond.
Sadly, this embrace of a child’s eye view is not without its pitfalls, namely that the topics of death and grief lose much of their emotional resonance. This shortcoming is especially evident in the film’s closing minutes, when the theatre of Sun-min and Dong-min’s odyssey transitions into the more sombre rituals of a funeral ceremony. Though the sequence is a natural conclusion to a journey that straddles the boundaries of life and death with tradition, culture, and mythology, it’s hard to experience the full weight of the moment after the underworld has been portrayed as so downright cosy.
Ultimately, Kokdu engages more for the strangeness of its execution than any sense of investment we might feel in its characters or story, but this is hardly a work to be viewed and appreciated through a lens of pure clinical detachment. On the contrary, there’s an undeniable warmth to Kim’s endearing picture, and even when the director’s earnest and peculiar vision doesn’t entirely cohere, the sum of the film’s many appealing parts keeps us sufficiently charmed throughout.