Narrative cinema is a broad medium with seemingly endless potential for disrupting common tropes, experimenting with form, and subverting audience expectations. That said, the further a filmmaker strays from the accepted mainstream the more challenging their work will become for that mainstream. There is a limit that a film may cross; one that leaves it without an audience at all. A Korean in Paris, a 2015 drama directed by Jeon Soo-il, does not stretch quite that far but it certainly did test this viewer’s patience.
A dishevelled Korean man (Cho Jae-hyun) wanders the streets of Paris, spending his days asleep under bridges and his nights showing strangers a photograph of his missing wife in the hope that someone might recognise her. Some time in the past he spent his honeymoon with her (Pang Ji-in) in Paris, where she expressed a strange fascination with the local sex workers before mysteriously disappearing without a trace.
A Korean in Paris is a profoundly quiet and stripped-back work. It is low on action and dialogue, spending the bulk of its running time sinking into a hopeless and grimy miasma of Paris at night. Sex workers, johns, and the homeless abound. A rain-slicked dampness seems to soak into every frame. Misery dominates, as the sullen Sang-ho (Cho) – who does not speak more than a few words of French – goes about his endless task. Whatever money he had has long run out. He sleeps under newspapers and raids dumpsters for food.
A lengthy flashback showcases Sang-ho in happier times, riding a tourist bus through the city with his new wife Yeon-wha. She seems oddly sex-obsessed; not just pressing Sang-ho for it but dragging him to seedy adult cinemas and voyeuristically observing sex workers on the street. When he momentary leaves her on an errand and returns, she is no longer there. He fears she has been kidnapped, but secretly dwells on whether she may have run away to become a sex worker instead.
The difference between the Sang-ho of the main narrative and the Sang-ho of the flashback is palpable. In the past he is young and clean-cut. In the present he looks more than a decade older, and psychological broken. His search shambles through the film, with a stumbling and drunken gait. He searches not out of desperation any more, but routine. The longer he searches, the more the film begins to slip out of reality. By its third act it becomes unreliable, and unclear whether events are occuring as seen on screen or not.
Cho Jae-hyun is brilliantly subtle and tragic as Sang-ho, but the weight of the film’s atmosphere seems enormously oppressive. It tests its audience’s patience to breaking point, and does not end in the definitive or satisfying manner most viewers will expect. Jeon Soo-il has direcred a movie with a clear artistic intent and a very strong mise-en-scene, but it strays enough from expectations that it tends to test one’s patience. It is a success at what it does, yet somehow seems a failure in what it is.