South Korea, 2019, 115’, Korean
Directed: Jeon Gye-soo
Script: Jeon Gye-soo
Photography (color): Lee Seong-eun
Editing: Kim Hyeong-joo, Choi Ja-young
Art Direction: Kim Young-tak
Music: Kim Dong-ki
Producers: Jang So-jung, Yang Ah-young
Cast: Chun Woo-hee (Shin Seo-young), Yoo Tae-oh (Jin-soo), Jeong Jae-kwang (Seo Kwan-woo), Hong Ji-seok (Deputy Department Head Kwon), Park Ye-young (Ye-dam)
Date of First Release in Territory: October 16th, 2019
Premiere status: Italian Premiere
Jeon Gye-soo’s Vertigo stars the currently hot, super-busy actress Chun Woo-hee (The Wailing, Idol). Seo-young, played by Chun, is a thirtysomething professional woman working in a corporation located in one of those high-rises in Seoul. Unlike her outwardly glamorous appearance, her life is constantly beset by crises and difficulties. Her job is only temporary and entirely dependent on the company’s whim. Her clandestine romance with her superior Jin-soo (Yoo Tae-oh, Seoul Searching) is far from stable either. Her relationship with her mother, who lives apart in Busan, is, charitably put, a mess, and the one with her father, who severed contact long ago, is practically nonexistent. To add insult to injury, she has a chronic health issue.
In short, she is an archetype of a Korean urbanite working woman in her thirties, into whose body and soul all the anxieties and pains of her cohorts are compressed. The film does not pull punches in illustrating the openly misogynistic corporate culture of Korea, almost to the point that it sometimes plays like a whistleblowing documentary. Physical forms of violence including sexual harassment are only a part of it. Perhaps even more frightening is the subtle structure of inequality underlying such brazen behavior.
In a setup like this, the actor who plays Seo-young must carry the whole film like Atlas burdened with Earth on its shoulders, and Chun paints her portrait fervently, at times nearly majestically, like the protagonist of a passion play. And she is extremely beautiful throughout the film. Someone quipped that this is in effect a two-hour pictorial video showcasing Chun Woo-hee, but I think a pictorial that caused this much distress in the viewer would surely run into problems.
However, there is one real problem with this film. It often appears to treat Seo-young’s pain and anxiety as objects of aesthetic appreciation. Like a heroine of a 19th-century opera, Seo-young is beautiful precisely because she suffers. Indeed, is not the film giving greater weight to the pity the heroine’s pain invokes, rather than her pain itself?
I believe Kwan-woo (Jeong Jae-kwang, Extreme Job), the film’s “male protagonist,” is the character that embodies this particular problem. For starters, he is a window-cleaner for the high-rise in which she works. Thanks to his job, Kwan-woo continues to observe Seo-young through the windows he is cleaning, and eventually she becomes aware of his eyes as well. If this setup had merely been a device to initiate a romantic relationship between the two, it might not have mattered much. However, in this film Kwan-woo’s character literally consists of a collection of persistent voyeuristic gazes toward Seo-young. And I cannot help but recognize much overlap between Kwan-woo’s actions and the film’s objectification of Seo-young. To be blunt, this “man who pities a beautiful, suffering woman” takes up too much of this film otherwise centered on the heroine.
This is one reason why we flinch a bit when they manage to get together and start communicating with one another near the end. I do understand that the story was leading up to that moment, which is indeed dramatic and even beautiful, but it fails as a real solution to Seo-young’s problems. I can only hope that Seo-young, after the movie has ended, will have found a proper legal solution to her troubles. After all, she could subpoena a very persistent observer as her eyewitness.
Jeon Gye-soo majored in Philosophy at Sogang University and subsequently wrote several stage plays. After accumulating experience in theater and musicals, he made his directorial debut with the film musical The Ghost Theater in 2006. His commercially successful third feature Love Fiction won a Best Screenplay award from the 48th Baeksang Arts Awards.
2006 – The Ghost Theater
2010 – Lost & Found
2012 – Love Fiction
2019 – Vertigo