Teenage friends wrestle with a sense of mortality, frustrated longing, and future anxiety in the etherial feature debut from actor Cho Hyun-chul, The Dream Songs (너와 나, Neo wa Na). Set shortly before the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster and shot in a washed out soft focus with a hazy nostalgic quality, the oneiric drama finds its conflicted heroine coming to an appreciation of the solipsistic qualities of obsessive love while preparing to cross the line between adolescence and adulthood in fearing she may not return from her upcoming trip or that the her that returns will not be same and the world will have moved on without her.
The trip is only four days, but for Sam (Park Hye-su) it represents the end of her adolescence and the beginning of adulthood. As the film opens, she wakes up in her classroom after having a disturbing dream that something bad is going to happen to her best friend Ha-eun (Kim Si-eun) who is currently in the hospital though only for broken leg after being hit by pedal bike on a zebra crossing. So upset is she, that Sam manages to convince her teacher to let her leave early to verify that Ha-eun is OK with her own eyes and try to convince her to come on the school trip to Jeju with her, broken leg and all, so that whatever happens happens to them together.
In the repeated dream imagery, it’s being left on her own that Sam seems to fear. She doesn’t want to be the only one who survives or the only one who dies and leaves her friend behind though as she confesses there was something that felt peaceful in her dream on looking at a corpse that might have been her own. The school trip to Jeju is one that many teenagers take in a quite literal rite of passage, but it’s also tinged with additional anxiety in the painful reminders of the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster, directly referenced via a radio broadcast, in which many school children taking the trip from the area where the film takes place lost their lives. Sam’s impending sense of foreboding causes her to reevaluate her relationships and especially that with her best friend Ha-eun for whom she has developed romantic feelings she is unsure can be returned. Afraid to leave without saying anything but also worried she may be rejected and end up imploding the friendship too, Sam’s internalised conflict ironically blinds to her Ha-eun’s individual suffering in having recently lost her pet dog as well as her disappointment on missing out on the trip while recovering from her accident.
Cho frequently lands on the image of clocks, often stopped, which hint at time running out while there are frequent allusions to death and drowning from the bird Sam finds on the ground by the school to the girls’ final parting seemingly taking place in front of a stranger’s funeral with mourners talking outside while people carry funeral wreaths directly past them. While the lines between dream and reality continue to blur, Sam sees images of herself in the two little girls playing together in the park and another with her grandmother who “saves” a toy dinosaur from drowning in an environment in which it is unable to survive. She and Ha-eun chase a lost dog and eventually end up on opposite sides of a fence which is the outcome Sam most feared, but are eventually reunited and able to have a more emotionally honest conversation now that Sam has come to an understanding of the self-involved qualities of her romantic obsession.
Even so, for the first part of the film it isn’t entirely clear if Sam’s feelings are indeed romantic or if it’s more a case of intense teenage friendship that causes her to be jealous of others that might be spending time with Ha-eun while preoccupied with the identity of the mysterious “Humbaba” whom Ha-eun apparently wanted to kiss in a diary entry Sam was presumably not intended to read. Sam’s feelings are made clear in a letter she doesn’t have the courage to send while she seems to fear that time may slip away from her and Ha-eun won’t be there when she returns from her trip. Yet what she ends up awakening to is more like self love, or at least no longer fearing “Joy” will fly away from her when she’s not looking. Cho’s hazy, poetic coming-of-age drama excels in capturing the joyful quality of teenage female friendship and diffidence of first love if tinged with a note of melancholy nostalgia in the wake of a devastating loss.
The Dream Songs screened as part of BFI Flare 2023
Original trailer (English subtitles)