An uncommon edge of social realism underpins this 2005 feature from acclaimed independent Korean film director Jeon Soo-il. Noel Megahey reviews the Korean Region 3 release, now available from YesAsia.
There isn’t a strong tradition of socially realistic filmmaking in Korea, and even when the nation’s troubled history and division into North and South is broached, it’s often in the manner of a genre war movie or romantic melodrama entertainment. Jeon Soo-il’s third feature film, Time Between Dog And Wolf takes a much more realistic look at the modern social divisions that are a legacy of the country’s past and its current economic situation, taking the film away from the middle-class dramas of Seoul into the more rarely seen Gangwon region. It’s against this powerful, stark and evocative background of high mountains and economically deprived villages that two personal dramas are played-out.
Film director Kim is busy working on his latest film in Pusan, but the financial and production difficulties are making it difficult to finish. Every phone-call just seems to bring more pressures, not least a personal call that he receives from his cousin Ilgyu in Sokcho. His cousin proposes that Kim accompany him and his mother on a trip to meet the husband she lost during the Korean War, having just received news that he is alive and in China. It’s the last thing that Kim needs, but with the pressures of his creditors mounting, the director takes the opportunity to get away from it all for a period, returning to the north-eastern region where he was born and a hometown he hasn’t visited in twenty years.
The trip with his family falls through on account of difficulties placed in their way by the North Korean authorities, but Kim, perhaps not yet ready to return to the problems back in Pusan, hooks up with a young woman, Young-hwa, he has met in the lodging where he is staying – a woman who has made the same journey to Sokcho looking for a lost sister. While the silent, uncommunicative young woman undertakes her own investigation, Kim himself tries to find significant places from his childhood, like the photography shop once owned by his father. Adjacent to the border with North Korea, Sokcho and its surrounding villages have however changed beyond all recognition in the years since the Korean War and Kim scarcely recognises the place he left behind.
With two characters, neither of them particularly likeable, lost in their own concerns and silent contemplation, neither of them making a meaningful connection with the other despite their common circumstances, Time Between Dog And Wolf can be a difficult film to relate to. The slow pace and generally subdued tone suggests that the film be approached in a manner of a Hong Sang-soo film, and indeed with Kim and Young-hwa rather awkwardly undertaking a journey together and embarrassingly bumping off each other, the awkwardness only exacerbated by the amount of alcohol consumed by the man over dinner, the film often resembles On The Occasion of Remembering The Turning Gate or indeed, perhaps more significantly The Power of Kangwon Province, particularly in the film’s mountainous northern location and its all-important proximity to North Korea.
Set in Sokchu, in a region divided by the civil war, creating a border that would split families, leaving then without any communication or further knowledge of their existence, Time Between Dog And Wolf extends the nature of the uncomfortable social interaction between Kim and Young-hwa and their personal search for lost childhoods to a wider Korean context. Like Park Heung-shik’s Railroad (2007), another more recent Korean film covering some of the same themes, the journey north undertaken by the man and woman is marked then by a coldness and falling of snow, their encounters with others in the region, as well as with each other, further characterised by open hostility, mistrust and lack of communication. The towns they travel to – almost ghost-towns, derelict and almost unrecognisable, the people when seen at all never venturing further than their gates – the sheer forbidding nature of the mountains and the gulf they place between North and South, the threatening hour of sunset when a dog becomes indistinguishable from a wolf, all reflect not just the nature of the characters, their predicament and their outlook, but that of the Korean people to some extent.
That’s a difficult and rather weighty subject to approach from the point of view of two not particularly open or likeable characters, who speak very little and it certainly places some challenges on the viewer in trying to relate either to them or to the wider situation through the even less pleasant characters they meet on their journey. There is however in Time Between Dog And Wolf a tremendous sense of location which is highly evocative, and not just in the obvious barbed wire of the border points or even the impressive imagery of the mountain range. The deserted, rundown towns of Gangwon, the sparse little bedrooms and bars, the narrow icy streets that prove treacherous to the visitors lost there, fallen there, and knocked over there, and even the enigmatic ending, all provide the little details that speak far more eloquently about the situation of those seeking to find some meaning in the past or direction into the future.
Time Between Dog And Wolf is released in the Korea by Premiere Entertainment. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in NTSC format, and is Region 3 encoded.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but surprisingly the transfer is not anamorphically enhanced. In practice this doesn’t cause too many problems since in most other respects the progressively encoded transfer is strong. The image is clear and well-toned with good detail and adequate black levels, the image never appearing overly processed as Korean transfers often can. Colours are natural, the film mixing colourful neon-lit locations with cold, snow covered locations and achieving a good balance. Although non-anamorphic, the image can be zoomed to fill a widescreen television screen without much loss of resolution, although this may emphasise the minor instances of shimmering on horizontal lines that can be detected. It’s not a perfect transfer, but any issues are minor and with the strong cinematography, the film often looks very good indeed.
If there has been any skimping in the provision of only one soundtrack option, at least it’s a favourable choice with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The sound is clear and strong, with well placed subtle directional effects and a nice dynamic range that has depth and detail even with silent passages and small sounds.
Optional English and Korean subtitles are provided. The English subtitles are in a bold, strong white font which is well-sized. There are only one or two minor flaws in spelling and construction, but otherwise the translation is fine. The subtitles reside inside the frame of the letterboxed image, meaning that the image can be zoomed to widescreen and the subtitles retained.
There are no extra features on the DVD.
Time Between Dog And Wolf does have a tendency to wallow silently in arthouse angst, reflecting it in the bleak surroundings that the characters find themselves in, but Jeon Soo-il’s independent feature has a great deal of value for the manner in which it extends the scope of Korean cinema, moving away from the more typical middle-class character drama and from the standard narrative format to examine underlying social issues rarely confronted elsewhere in the nation’s cinema. With a non-anamorphic transfer and no extra features, the Korean Region 3 DVD release from Premiere Entertainment is basic, but the quality of the transfer is strong nonetheless, fully capturing the qualities of the film’s mood and cinematography.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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