South Korean director Seo-jin Yoon’s Chorokbam is experienced sensorially more than it is perceived cerebrally. Watching the movie feels like walking closer and closer to an impressionist painting, and realizing only when you’re at the foot of the painting that it depicts a house on fire. Chorokbam is subtle and visually stunning, but it’s also so much more than that: its pacing and music and images come together to create a triumph of a film, one that tells a story that will be felt in viewers’ bones.
Chorokbam follows three characters — a father (Tae-hoon Lee), his son (Gil-woo Kang), and the mother (Min-kyung Kim)— as they reckon with the aftermath of the father’s father’s death: first, his funeral, and then the matter of distributing his effects amongst the father and his two sisters. The patriarch’s death brings out the worst in the siblings, and they fight viciously amongst each other as the mother deals with the bureaucratic miasma that attends death. More than probing any nuanced narrative idea or aspect, Chorokbam is concerned with exploring the palpable weight of loss on the father, the son, and the mother, looking at how their psyches are uniquely affected and frayed by the unfortunate circumstance.
The film is framed interestingly: the camera both merely watches as characters move throughout their world and takes overtures into their lives, submerging us into moments in a meandering way. The effect is that, sometimes, we watch characters melt into their surroundings, whilst, at others, we feel we’re in the room, sitting right next to them. Certain vistas of nature or domesticity are enlivened with such intimacy as to have viewers viscerally feel what the characters must feel: a dusty dawn breeze through leaves so green you can taste them, or something boiling on the stove, its big viscous bubbles popping with such voluptuousness you can almost smell the steam. So many of Chorokbam’s frames contain such little action but so much life.
There is an intense solitude to shots of trees and benches and light posts in an empty park at night, wherein sits the son, surrounded by the swirls of his cigarette smoke. Chorokbam’s cinematographer is Kyeong-yeob Choo and Nam-gyu Ha heads its sound department; the two work in intense but subtle ways to fully immerse viewers into the lonely landscapes that house the characters’ sad, contemplative reveries. We see the breeze through the leaves and we hear its whoosh, and we hear cats fighting and birds chirping at the break of dawn, all as the characters slowly move through these landscapes, silently and sleepily considering their lives, wondering about their fate, wrestling with death itself.
In addition to Chorokbam’s cinematographic and sonic immersion, the actors themselves deliver added intensity to this sensation. While we might be in visually stunning spaces — the family’s apartment flooded with warm light and the sounds of food being prepared, for example — there is always an aching tiredness around the three protagonists, a tense aura that works to put viewers on edge. So much of the plot’s heft is carried by the weighted silences that fill this movie: the sighs as the son collapses into his mother and father’s couch at the end of a long day, the groans the mother lets out as she gets up from the ground where she sits making kimchi. Each character is experiencing enormous psychological catastrophes, anxieties about money, and fear of what the future will hold, spurred on by the unvocalized anxiety of the increasingly vanishing middle class. The gravity of the unsaid — carried by each character’s air and their gasps at their body’s pain — permeates every scene, suffusing and undercutting the crisp green natural landscapes they inhabit.
Choo’s lush green cinematography is injected with the exhaustion felt by the father (from his shifts as a night watchman), the son (from his psychologically demanding job as a social worker), and the mother (from her endless labor as a housewife, looking after the family’s administrative affairs because the father sleeps during the day). The effect of this commingling is that watching the movie leaves the body sore. Because of the three characters’ various tirednesses from the labor they perform, Chorokbam is suffused with a debilitating ache — a throbbing exhaustion — that seems to intensify as the film goes on and the family encounters increasingly tough times in the aftermath of the father’s father’s death. The emotional weight of the characters’ tragedy doesn’t strike you until literally the final few frames, when your brain realizes what your body knew all along: that something has been wrong from the start. You realize the fire has been raging all this time.
Chorokbam is stunningly executed and meticulously crafted to be beautiful but lonely, too. With its cinematography, sound, and the cast’s deft skill, this movie is a masterclass in how to make viewers literally feel the physical and psychological pain that the characters are feeling. Yoon’s is a tender gem of a film that will leave you aching and ambiently anxious — wondering, alongside the characters, whether you will be okay.