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November 11, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Dance Town


Jeon Kyu-hwan - 2010
Lane Street Pictures Digital Presentation

In one remarkable moment in Dance Town, a woman, Jung-nim visits the housebound Mr. Lee, with the purpose of bringing him home made kimchi. No one answers, and Jung-nim pushes the door open, only to discover Mr. Lee, whose mobility is limited to dragging himself across the floor, attempting to commit suicide with the cord around his neck, attached to the door. Jung-nim struggles to undo the cord, while the chocking Lee wraps his arms around her, pulling down her dress. The two hold each other, breathing heavily. Whether accidentally or on purpose, what is seen is a moment binding sex and death, at once both horrifying and darkly humorous.

I've been able to see two of Jeon's three "town" films. I am not sure how well I can assess what I've seen because even though I have some familiarity with Korean history and culture, Jeon's films strike me as being very culturally specific. This is to say that especially while watching Dance Town, it struck me that there is much about Korean culture that I don't understand.

Dance Town is about a woman who escapes to South Korea from the north. Her husband, a businessman of some kind, has been caught smuggling goods from South Korea. Traveling by a Chinese boat, Jung-nim is initially grilled by government agents, and placed in a government owned apartment. Unknown to Jung-nim is that her apartment has hidden cameras, while the South Korean government assesses whether she is a spy or a true refugee. The irony is that Jung-nim trades one surveillance state for another.

As in Animal Town, the other Jeon film I've seen, seemingly unrelated characters and events are seen, gradually tied together. In Dance Town, not all of the characters or events have impact on each other, but are part of a broader picture. The sense of despair that affects many of the characters, the bleakness of the resolutions, make me think of Michael Haneke. Certainly, the scenes of Jung-nim being video recorded in her apartment, and her social worker watching the videos are the kinds of scenes from several Haneke films. Jeon's films also act as critiques of South Korean society, and the treatment not only of North Korean refugees, but the crippled and elderly.

Part of the drama is Jung-nim's not knowing whether her husband will be able to rejoin her. Jung-nim and Lee, in one of their conversations, conclude that people are pretty much the same everywhere. Jeon raises the question as to whether Jung-nim might have still escaped to South Korea if she could not be with her husband, knowing that had she stayed in North Korea, she would likely be executed for possessing "foreign" goods. Where Jeon is quite different from Haneke is that Jeon also has room for visits from ghosts, a loved one remembered whose presence is briefly seen. In both Animal Town and Dance Town, these scenes might be considered mystical or magic realism, presented in a very low key fashion. As is indicated in this interview, Jeon allows for ambiguity, both in the story, and with what is, or is not revealed, allowing the viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 11, 2011 08:26 AM