Don't Look Back Review
Don’t Look Back is the debut feature film from Kim Young-nam, a young Korean director who has worked as assistant director to Hong Sang-soo on Woman Is The Future Of Man. The independent stylisations and influence of Hong Sang-soo are clearly evident in this film, both in the subject matter of young people seeking to find a meaningful connection with other people and in the minimalist filming style, but Kim Young-nam manages to successfully place his own personal stamp on the material.
The film consists of three separate stories based around three young people of differing ages with little obvious connection between each of them other than the dissatisfaction that each of them feel about the direction their lives are taking. The first section of the film follows a 21 year-old dancer, Jung-hee. Having broken up with her boyfriend, she and her sister look for a flat together, but things turn sour when her sister tries to bring about a reconciliation with their father who abandoned them 15 years ago. Unhappy with her life, Jung-hee cuts her hair, tells everyone she has changed her name to Evita, since she has just got a part in a tango version of the musical, and tries to start a new life for herself, but things don’t quite work out.
In the second part of the film, a 25 year-old telecoms engineer Keun-woo finds himself in danger of being laid-off by the company he works for. His friend has been trying to make money by photographing couples having affairs at motels and blackmailing them. Fascinated by one of the girls in the photographs, Keun-woo uses a phone tap to eavesdrop on the girl’s phone conversations with an older married man. Convinced the man is no good for her, Keun-woo is tempted to intervene.
In the third story, 30 year-old Sergeant Kim returns home on leave to a strained relationship with his wife Ji-eun, but he finds many other things have changed while he has been away. People he once knew are moving on and getting married, and while he is still studying for a PhD, old classmates are now joining the teaching staff of the college where he is studying. Life seems to have left him behind.
All the characters and their situations are ones that are familiar from Hong Sang-soo films – out of work actors, young people who find they no longer fit in at all well with old friends at reunions and dinner parties – each of them desperately wanting to find a meaningful connection with other people, drinking heavily and having cold, mechanical sex as they seek to find the key that will reveal for them a purpose and provide them with a direction in life. Also like Hong Sang-soo, Kim Young-nam shoots each of the scenes with a cool detachment, seemingly artlessly, but in reality concealing a particular and clearly planned structure. There appears to be no connection between each of the three characters here, but on the radio in each of their stories we hear news reports of predicaments similar to their own, connecting them not only with each other but with a wider population. As the diverse ages of the characters suggests, this is not a dissatisfaction related to these particular people or those of a particular narrow age group, but to a whole generation.
The images of train tracks makes an appearance in all three stories - Jung-hee placing her head on the rails, Keun-woo and his friend are seen walking down along the tracks, Sergeant Kim follows his wife on a train – but beyond the obvious imagery of life following a track that the characters are unable to direct, there is a further meaning, one that is perhaps not even that optimistic. These characters are not on a train journey to any destination - the train has already passed them by and they are left with the silence of its passing.
Don’t Look Back is released in Korea by Dae Kyeong. The disc is encoded for Region 3 and is in NTSC format.
This is not a release from a major studio and as an independent and no doubt low-budget production, the DVD release is appropriately low-key. It’s non-anamorphic – which is a first on any Korean DVD I have come across – but in the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is also interlaced, which causes some minor blurring movements, but this isn’t a major problem, even on a progressive display. The image quality itself is just about adequate, and it has all the hallmarks of being taken from a theatrical print. Contrast is strong, colours are slightly out, with reds in particular looking rather glaring, and there is an overall softness to the image. Colour and brightness levels fluctuate frequently and there is some problem with low-level noise. Scratches and minor marks can be seen here and there. It’s a bog-standard transfer that is just about adequate for the demands of the film, but really no better than that.
Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 mixes of the original soundtrack are included. Generally the audio on both is clear both with regards to the dialogue and the soundtrack – the film benefits from an excellent original score and good choice of incidental pop-music – but there appears to be some drop-out of the sound in three or four places towards the end of the film. In the 5.1 mix, this is evident in a curious mixing, which drops loud background noises to allow low or badly recorded centre channel dialogue to be heard. In the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, the sound in these sections loses the dialogue entirely, with only the front stereo sound effects being audible. This only affects a portion of the soundtrack, and is a relatively minor problem on the 5.1 mix.
English subtitles are provided in a white font and are optional. The translation is reasonably good and can be clearly understood, though there are quite a few grammatical issues throughout.
The extra features consist of a Commentary and a Trailer (1.47). None of the extra features have English subtitles. An insert with the DVD provides a Synopsis, Production Notes and information on cast and crew, but it is also in Korean only.
Kim Young-nam’s debut film Don’t Look Back paints a fairly bleak picture of modern Korean society and its youth, showing them leading an empty existence with no real alternative way of living or means of escape, but like the films of Hong Sang-soo (On The Occasion of Remembering The Turning Gate, A Tale Of Cinema) the film is not entirely without humour, finding something comical in its characters struggles to find increasingly desperate ways to keep going and not look back. It’s a fine, solid debut from a young director, well scripted and performed, showing evidence of but not quite realising its potential. While the presentation is certainly adequate, the DVD quality is not quite up to the standard we have come to expect from the major Korean studios, but as a small independent film on a small label, I suppose we should be grateful to have it on DVD with English subtitles at all.