If you were to catalogue my favorite films of all time, you’d quickly discover a certain strain of emotion that characterizes a large portion of them: melancholy. Inside Llewyn Davis, Alice in the Cities, The Illusionist (2010), Days of Heaven, Close-Up, A Woman Under the Influence, Wanda—I suppose I am quite attracted to lonely characters and bittersweet fragments of life (gee, I wonder why?). With that in mind, I am happy to say I have found a wonderful new addition to this melancholic canon, South Korean filmmaker Jeon Go-woon’s debut feature Microhabitat.
Microhabitat tells the story of Miso (Esom), a thirty-something year old housekeeper who lives an extremely modest lifestyle. Every month, using an old school cash register, she meticulously plans her budget to accommodate rent for her dingy, unheated single room lodging, her medication (she has an undisclosed nonfatal illness that turns her hair white if she abstains from the medication), and most importantly, two of the three things she cherishes most: cigarettes and whisky. When a raise in rent coincides with a nationwide increase in cigarette prices, she is forced to choose between her home and her vices; naturally, she chooses the latter. However, her boyfriend Han-sol (Ahn Jae-hong)—an aspiring webtoon artist who completes the trifecta of joy in her life—lives in a male-only dormitory, so she turns to her former college bandmates for help. What ensues is a couch-surfing journey of discovery and solitude, alternately marked by moments of existential dread and lighthearted humor.
The film is loosely broken up into chapters, each titled by the bandmate’s role: drums, vocals, keyboard, and guitar. Though the circumstances of these characters vary wildly, a quiet desperation links them all. The keyboardist struggles with being an unappreciated housewife, the vocalist suffers from a prostate issue and still lives with his parents, who comically try to hook him up with Miso, and the guitarist who married into a cushy, well-off life that is in direct opposition to the fiery persona she once had. The most affecting vignette though pertains to the drummer, who is emotionally devastated after the recent separation of his wife. He locks himself in his room and mostly communicates with Miso through the door, his muffled fits of crying still audible from the other side. To ease his burden, Miso does what she does best and cleans his apartment.
Actually, it’s something she does for everyone she stays with. That, along with the meals she frequently cooks for everyone, help characterize both her efficiency and how different she is from her friends. They all live complicated lives, whereas Miso is content with simplicity. Because of this, a small sense of resentment resides in all of them; Miso represents the carefree spirit they used to harbor, the living embodiment of their dreams deferred. Despite her luck, she seemingly possesses an unbreakable will. Esom plays her to perfection, bringing a peculiar aura to a peculiar character. She nails the silent stoicism while still maintaining appropriate vulnerability. Sadly can’t say I’m familiar with her work, but from what I gather this was her first big lead after a career of mostly supporting characters. I’m confident it won’t be her last.
The connecting tissue of the vignettes is Miso’s relationship with Han-sol. It’s incredibly endearing, even in the face of hardship. Seoul being one of the world’s biggest megacities, it’s not easy to get by without a decent income. Han-sol’s current job doesn’t pay enough, and he always laments not being able to eat at nice restaurants. A great example of the tragicomedy nature of the film comes from a scene where the two donate blood to buy movie tickets. Microhabitat excels in moments like that, presenting the harsh reality of its economic purview with nuance and juuuust enough humor to lessen the blow.
Really, I can’t recommend the movie enough. I’ve enjoyed a great deal of what I’ve watched at this year’s LA Film Festival, but this is far and away my favorite. It’s one of those movies where I left the theater wanting to watch it again immediately. So rarely is this type of quiet devastation earned, but when it happens, I’m not sure there is a more powerful effect in filmmaking. Microhabitat makes you feel a whole spectrum of emotion, but more often than not it points towards sadness. What’s more human than that?