“Our life’s journey consists of both positive and negative. It teaches us to move forward and fulfil your dreams” according to Han-chul (Han Jong-hoon), a digital nomad waxing philosophical about the benefits of the unencumbered life. “Sesang” (세상) in one sense just means the world, but it can also mean “a life” or even a life’s journey, a passage through the world both a part of it and not. Han-chul, however, by the film’s conclusion is perhaps beginning to wonder if there are also costs involved in a life without connection, unanchored by his floating existence and imbued with a sense of existential loneliness as the world changes around him while he changes with it but perhaps not quite in step.
The film opens in New York with aspiring actress Nari (Kim Jin-young) travelling to the airport to meet Han-chul, her long-distance boyfriend, at the airport. Han-chul has been working on a documentary in Japan about a divorcee who relocated there and is seemingly visiting Nari while waiting for another opportunity. Nari’s barbed comment that she isn’t sure they “share the same dreams” when Han-chul remarks on the similarity of her upcoming project about a long-distance couple to their real lives perhaps signals that she’s not entirely satisfied with their relationship, eventually sparking an argument that leads to a break-up when Han-chul reveals he’s been offered a job in Berlin annoyed with him for once again abruptly changing his plans, both in his abandonment of her and of his complete lack of consideration for the inconvenience he may cause her through breezing in and out of her life.
Then again both Nari and Han-chul appear to be fairly self-contained. Each of them find themselves spending a lot of time home alone while living with roommates who are generally out. Nari’s New York life is spent largely within the Korean ex-pat community, often working on Korean productions, eating in Korean restaurants and going to noraebang with Korean friends. She is offended when her mother tries to send her money, resentful at the implication that she’s struggling but also finding herself at the mercy of a sometimes cruel industry that limits the kind of work available to her while normalising an abusive working environment. The one job we see her do which is presented in such a way as to mimic real life is also problematic in playing into several different unpleasant and racially charged stereotypes at once. Later she is invited to rejoin a production she apparently left because of the behaviour of a Korean producer who, she is assured, has since been fired. Her break-up with Han-chul is followed by a job offer back in Korea which sees her pursuing parallel careers, travelling back and forth working at “home” but living “abroad”.
Staying on in New York, Han-chul too takes a room with someone who’s never in but takes the opportunity to rid himself of most of his possessions. In fact, even his hair becomes progressively shorter as time moves on to the point at which it doesn’t quite suit him, an old friend somewhat derisively commenting on his “edgy” new style. He tells a mutual friend, Eun-hye (Jina Nam), who is definitively settled in New York by virtue of owning a restaurant, that there are many things he may still want but attaining them cannot compare with the lightness of having nothing. Han-Chul’s philosophy may even extend to people as well as things. Perhaps he wanted Nari, or still wants her, but not enough to give up his life of freedom or indeed to deny her hers. He is happy to hear that she too is travelling the world, gaining new experiences and growing as a person, at this point at least convinced that life is about forward motion and the expansion of borders internal and external.
Yet on his eventual return to Korea after experiencing a degree of disappointment, he seems lost rather than free, a man without a plan adrift without direction. His aloneness seems all the more obvious among the throng of travellers at the airport each heading somewhere or nowhere only they can know. He sees movies in empty theatres, lives in bare rooms, and wanders down empty streets. Often returning to transitory spaces such as airports and train stations, Suo’s preference for long takes with a degree of detachment hints at a cinema of loneliness asking us if this increasingly migratory existence has disrupted the natural rhythms of human relationships such as that of Nari and Han-chul who were, at least according to Eun-hye, once “so close” but now very far apart both physically and emotionally. Han-chul may be searching for the very thing that he has rejected in his floating life, but nevertheless remains on the move chasing his dreams if perhaps not quite sure what exactly they may be.
Sesang streams in the US Oct. 23 to 31 as part of this year’s Korean American Film Festival New York.
Original trailer (English subtitles)