Maternal anxiety destabilises a young woman’s sense of reality in Kim Hye-mi’s animated psychological horror, Climbing (클라이밍). Impending motherhood has it seems forced Kim’s heroine to confront a series of uncomfortable questions about the direction of her life, the ways in which it must inevitably change over time, and what it is she really wants all the while contending with a loss of control over her physical body mastery over which has in a sense been her life’s work.
Professional indoor climber Se-hyeon (Kim Min-ji) has begun having strange dreams that her sympathetic boyfriend Woo-in (Goo Ji-won) attributes to possible PTSD following a nasty car accident some months previously which left her in a lengthy coma and led to a miscarriage after which Se-hyeon was cared for by Woo-in’s mother (Park Song-yi). Hearing of the dreams Woo-in is excited to think they may have another child on the way, only for Se-hyeon to coldly snap at him that the only “accident” was getting pregnant in the first place because she never wanted the baby.
This is partly as we discover because of her determination to succeed as a professional climber which of course requires intense mastery over her physicality. The one reality she cannot dispute, however, is that she is ageing and that her body will necessarily change in ways over which she does not exercise full control. This is brought home to her by the perky presence of a slightly younger rival, Ah-in (also Park Song-yi), who pips her to the top spot in a minor competition. Greeted by Woo-in, it’s clear they’ve both known the young woman for some years, Woo-in’s talk of taking her out for pizza or hamburgers suggesting he still thinks of her as a child, implying that Se-hyeon has become acutely aware of the age difference between them while also jealous sensing danger in their accidentally flirtatious banter. Woo-in may be supportive of her career, but he too is perhaps feeling that it’s time to move on from competitive sports, presenting a ring over dinner and suggesting they finally get married while Se-hyeon could take up a steady job as a coach. Again she finds it hard to discern if this is genuine solicitous care or potentially abusive controlling behaviour, he petulantly suggesting they go home after she expresses reluctance to drink the expensive wine he’s ordered with their celebratory meal.
Meanwhile, she’s begun receiving mysterious text messages apparently from “herself” via a phone broken during in the accident. Her alter ego is still under the care of Woo-in’s mother, but unlike herself is a much more conventional figure of traditional femininity continually pining for Woo-in and apparently still carrying their child. As implied by the rather gothic family photo in Se-hyeon’s flat, just as she has begun to resent Woo-in, her other self suspects his mother, convinced that Woo-in is dead and that she is keeping it from her because she wants to take the baby as her own. Her two selves reflect her sense of ambivalence in response to motherhood, the other Se-hyeon literally forced into a frumpy maternity dress by her mother-in-law but determined to keep her baby, while Se-hyeon is intensely uncomfortable about the idea of a “foreign body” inside her own. Suspecting that the other Se-hyeon’s desires are beginning to bleed into her reality she takes drastic action in order to regain bodily control, but also finds herself fighting an uphill battle just to be allowed to continue competing on an international level while fearing literal and symbolic displacement by the next generation.
There is perhaps a slight discomfort in the insistence that Se-hyeon is wrong to reject motherhood or that she has lost the right to an active choice over whether or not to bear a child even as she appears to tear herself apart internally attempting to accept not only the idea of maternity and the weight of the new responsibilities it brings, but also that of transition, that she must necessarily become something new through this process of bodily transformation. Kim’s body horror psychodrama plays out entirely within the confines of Se-hyeon’s mind, the heavily stylised quality of the animation perhaps reflecting the inner alienation and intense anxiety which undermine her sense of reality while she struggles to reorient herself in a world changing all around her.
Climbing screens 18th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.
Trailer (English subtitles)