Throughout his career Lee Sang-il has shown himself adept at creating ensemble character dramas but nowhere is this as much in evidence as in his well crafted debut, Border Line. Focussing on the unlikely overlapping stories of a number of people who each find themselves crossing a threshold of a more spiritual nature, Border Line traces back each of the fractures in contemporary society to the broken cord of the parental bond.
We begin with teenage technical school student Matsuda (Sawaki Tetsu) who’s been in trouble for refusing to wear the required overalls. Later he runs away after his father is murdered only to be knocked down by drunken taxi driver Kurosawa (Murakami Jun) who ends up driving him half way to Hokkaido which is where he said he was from. Meanwhile, housewife Aikawa (Aso Yumi) has just started a new job at the combini but her son keeps skipping school and she soon realises it’s down to aggressive bullying. If that wasn’t enough, her husband has gone incommunicado after abruptly revealing via telephone that he lost his job a month ago and hasn’t found another one. Taking a step down to the underworld, we also meet low life gangster Miyaji (Mitsuishi Ken) who’s having a very bad as his partner ran off with the takings from a pachinko parlour to pay for expensive medical treatment for his daughter.
These are the lives of ordinary modern day people each facing extreme stress from all angles be they financial, societal, or existential. Matsuda is a young man and it’s only natural that he rebels a little to try and figure out who he is but it seems there may have been more going on in his life than just not wanting to wear a uniform. His mother left when he was a child and we don’t find out much about his relationship with his father but he spends the rest of the film looking for parental figures to essentially give him the permission to become an adult. The first of these is the taxi driver, Kurosawa, who, for various reasons isn’t able to help him (and only really decides he wanted to when it was too late). Finally, after a series of coincidences, he runs into Miyaji who is still grieving over having lost contact with his daughter after running out on his suicidal wife. Miyaji is not a great role model in many ways but still has some wisdom to impart to the younger man which may save his life in ways both literal and figural.
Miyaji and Aikawa are both coming from the other direction but struggling with their parental responsibilities. Aikawa has taken the job at the combini to help pay their mortgage – the house is very important to her as she was always ashamed of the modest home she grew up in with her parents. Like Miyaji, her husband seems to have more or less abandoned his family in his shame over losing his job, leaving Aikawa to bear all the responsibility for herself and her son. Eventually the pressure becomes so intense that Aikawa’s typical Japanese housewife persona starts to crumble resulting firstly in fantasies of violence before a crime filled rampage and kidnapping plot threaten to destroy what’s left of her life.
Back with the kids, another coincidence turns up Miyaji’s estranged high school aged daughter now also orphaned following the death of her mother leaving her with no other option than visiting hotel rooms with dodgy businessmen. Shunned at school and alone at home, hers is a lonely life marred by the failure of her parents. Both she and Matsuda, whom she eventually meets through another set of random coincidences, have had their futures ruined by poor parenting but, ironically, it maybe Miyaji who is able to help them even in his continued absence.
For a debut film, Border Line is a remarkably assured affair. Elegantly shot with decent production values, it handles its complicated set up with ease affording each of its distressed protagonists a degree of sympathy and understanding without the necessity of moral judgement. However, Lee does seem to want to lay the ills of modern society at the feet of the crumbling family unit only to present his younger protagonists with the idea of salvation as self actualisation. Decidedly low key, Lee’s debut film has a less commercial, deeper sensitivity than his subsequent efforts but still offers the compassionate sense of humanity which continues to inform his filmmaking.