Four years after his breakthrough Motel Cactus, Park Ki-yong returned to narrative filmmaking with the comparatively subdued Camel(s) (낙타(들), nagta(deul)). Like Cactus, Camel(s) adopts a thirsty, desert-bound title in its titular dromedaries, casting its two lonely heroes as a pair of solitary travellers in search of an oasis in an otherwise barren existence. An adulterous couple in early middle-age, these wandering souls are destined to connect only briefly before returning to their unsatisfying lives filled only with a defeated sense of relief intended to see them through until the next stream appears on the horizon.
40-something Man-sup (Lee Dae-yeon) arrives to collect 30-something Myeong-hui (Park Myeong-shin) from an airport. She’s a little put out because he’s late and she didn’t quite see him because he’s driving a different car. Evidently not a married couple, the pair must have met before but their conversation is awkward – they exchange superficial pleasantries and discuss name Hanja which suggests they don’t know each other terribly well. They were supposed to be going to an island, but it’s too late now and so they’ll have to make do with the nearby tourist resort of Sorae.
Lest it be forgotten, adultery was technically illegal in Korea until 2015. Man-sup and Myeong-hui have been careful enough to venture a long way from home in order to minimise the chances of being caught out on what has every likelihood of becoming an illicit one night stand between two desperately lonely people trapped in unfulfilling marriages and seemingly boring lives. They chat over dinner, discuss their failed hopes, sing their hearts out at karaoke and then, once the ice is broken, make their way to a love hotel for the true purpose of their visit.
Before they get there, over an awkward dinner, both Man-sup and Myeong-hui relate tales of friends who live lives of freedom and travel. Unmarried and fancy free, they go where they please and live without restraint. Myeong-hui, perhaps part in resentment, decries these lives as mere egotism, as if the desire to enjoy life in itself is an act of unforgivable selfishness. Man-sup partially disagrees. He doesn’t see too much wrong with the concept of “egotism”. After all, isn’t it alright to look after yourself as long as you consider how your actions might affect others? Man-sup is honest at least about his envy. He’d like to be free too, but doesn’t have the courage. This small digression from the everyday sameness of his life is his minor rebellion, isolated within a tiny bubble of artificial “freedom” set to burst and be forgotten.
Despite the strangeness of the situation, the awkwardness dissipates after they reach the hotel, allowing for deeper conversation and a tentative, temporary sense of connection. Though some years apart in age, Myeong-hui and Man-sup attended college in the same town and visited the same market but apparently never met. Their lives since have followed similar trajectories. Myeong-hui wanted to marry her college sweetheart but her family didn’t approve and she didn’t have the strength to fight them. It ended, and she eventually submitted herself to an arranged marriage. Man-sup too failed in romance and ended up married to a woman he was introduced to, though they dated for a year first so perhaps it amounts to the same thing. Superficially “happy” with their conventional relationships each resents the unfairness of lost love, regretting their failure to fight for their own futures and capitulation in accepting that merely presented to them.
Futility continues to define their lives. The easiness between them passes, and the old emptiness returns. Bearing their sadnesses separately they return to feigning politeness, biding their time until it’s time for them to part. The idea of reuniting is floated, but gathers only a mute response. Each of them knows they won’t meet again. Wounds given and received are smoothed over with money as a kind of salve to cure a sense of mutual responsibility. Park’s melancholy meditation on the impossibility of true connection and the enduring loneliness of existential longing finds only increasing despair in its middle-aged anti-romantics who find themselves alone in the desert, travelling onwards in silence but encountering only an ever distant horizon with no oasis in sight.
Camel(s) was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.