Have you ever met someone for the first time but felt as if you’ve been friends all your lives? Maybe you’ve been depressed and lonely enough to knock on a stranger’s door wishing you had that kind of friendship because there’s very little else in your life, but you probably didn’t find anyone quite as willing to play along as the increasingly fragile Mihee (Lee Sanghee) does when she marches up to Sungsook’s (Hong Seungyi) home and announces herself as a long lost childhood friend. From that description alone Jamsil (누에치던 방, Nuechideon Bang) sounds as if it could be a dark tale of stolen identity and mental disturbance, but first time feature director Lee Wanmin’s intentions are not so severe. Defying rational explanation and looping back through past traumas and regrets, Jamsil is a tale of female friendship in all of its complexity but also of its immediacy and warmth.
30-something Mihee has taken the bar exam several times, unsuccessfully. Wondering if now is the time to give up on a legal career but afraid she’s left it too late to get any other kind of job, Mihee wanders aimlessly, not really doing much of anything at all. Growing tired of having no money and of having the moping, listless Mihee to contend with, Mihee’s graduate student boyfriend throws her out and ends the relationship. Faced with her lack of money, Mihee can only afford a run down apartment in a dodgy part of town with a strange and invasive landlady. Mihee, going quietly mad through loneliness and feelings of failure, makes the strange decision to knock on a stranger’s door, stating that she and the woman on the other side were once best friends at high school.
This seems improbable as the woman, Sungsook, seems to be around ten year’s older than Mihee, but even so Sungsook lets her in and tries to comfort the obviously distressed woman as best she can. Sungsook’s live-in partner, her childhood sweetheart Ikju (Lim Hyongkook), does not like Sungsook’s habit of letting strangers into their home and sets out to investigate Mihee only to begin having an affair with her whilst keeping his relationship to Sungsook secret. Meanwhile, Sungsook develops an attraction for a younger reporter who wrote something nice about an avant-garde theatre show in which she performed.
Though Mihee and Sungsook have obviously never met before they seem to share an immediate connection and soon become firm friends. Both women are thrown back to the trials and traumas of their teenage years, confronting choices they did and didn’t make or which were made for them. A ghost from Sungsook’s past has literally followed her all the way into the future as the spectre of absent friends continues to mar her relationship with Ikju. Mihee was guided to Sungsook by a teenage girl with the same name as Sungsook’s real teenage best friend, who for some reason reminded her of her younger self, but Mihee’s decision to track down her own high school confidant does not go well as she leaves repeated messages on her voicemail which are never returned before making a final, drastic bid for recognition.
Both Mihee and Sungsook are in some way, stalled, unable to reconcile what it is they want with what they’re supposed to be. Perhaps they, like the silkworms which give their name to this particular part of town, must leave something of themselves behind in order to move forward, but then perhaps those memories can be spun into something finer and softer to the touch than the jagged scars they currently seem to be. Lee’s shooting style leans towards indie naturalism, but mixes in a little avant-garde theatricality with her “actors” and their discussions of political terminology or brief snippets of philosophical musings on the wider nature of existence. Never quite earning its two hour plus running time, Jamsil is nevertheless a deep and fascinating exploration of romanticised pasts and depressed futures in which female friendship is both salvation and destruction but always a strong and abiding connection spun in the larval stage.
Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.
Interview with director Lee Wanmin conducted at Busan International Film Festival 2016.