To many, the word “vertigo” is synonymous with a fear of heights, but in essence it refers more to a sense of unbalance, a giddiness born of having lost sight of the ground, temporarily unable to orient yourself within an environment which no longer seems to make sense. The heroine of Jeon Gye-soo’s artfully composed Vertigo (버티고) fears she is suffering with the medical variety caused by an ongoing problem with her inner ear which leaves her with recurrent tinnitus and a permanent sense of wooziness. She is also, however, suffering with a kind of existential dizziness, trapped in a constant state of anxiety in feeling entirely untethered to the world.
30-something Seo-young (Chun Woo-hee), is a contract worker at an ad company with an office on the upper floors of a high-rise building. Unbeknownst to her colleagues, she’s been having an affair with her handsome, once divorced boss, Jin-soo (Yoo Teo), but he seems to be holding something back from her, insisting on keeping their relationship secret and reluctant to introduce her to his grown-up son. Meanwhile, she’s subject to most of the minor micro-aggressions plaguing women in the work place which run from being expected to come in early to do menial tasks like refilling the photocopier and tidying the shelves, to casual sexual harassment. Somewhat out of it, Seo-young has managed to avoid most of that and thinks she’s moved past the stage of having to play the office lady game by keeping the men entertained at the not-technically-compulsory-but-you-still-have-to-go afterwork get-togethers. Her friend Yedam (Park Ye-young), however, has her getting worried, at once complaining about their sleazy team leader asking for massages and reminding her that they need to turn on the charm at least until their contracts are renewed.
Being a “contract worker” and not a salaried employee is certainly a major cause of Seo-young’s anxiety, leaving her feeling unanchored in her professional life in the knowledge that she could soon be unceremoniously cut loose for reasons largely unconnected to her performance. As a woman in her 30s it will be increasingly difficult to find a new job while a still patriarchal society will most likely write her off for daring to reject marriage in favour of work but failing to make a success of it. Her male bosses and colleagues, regular employees all, use her precarious status against her, expecting that she “play nice” to get a recommendation for further employment and threatening to tank her career if she doesn’t toe the line. She muses on going “far away” with Jin-soo, perhaps to Argentina, a land of passion where people dance the tango and drink wine late into the evening, but on some level knows it’s a just a comforting fantasy.
Regularly visiting an ear doctor, Seo-young tries to overcome her sense of unease through medical means, unwittingly returning to the source of her trauma buried in a painful childhood which regularly resurrects itself in her toxic relationship with her mother who only rings to belittle her success while complaining about her string of relationships with terrible men and unsatisfying life with Seo-young’s step-father. Seo-young can’t find firm ground because she is essentially unanchored, left dangling by a failure of the traditional family and seemingly with no “real” friends. She begins experiencing panic attacks at work, retreating to unoccupied rooms to calm herself by looking out at the horizon.
Meanwhile, her growing despair has been spotted by window cleaner and bookshop clown Gwan-woo (Jeong Jae-kwang) who is carrying a sadness of his own. He pities and protects her, supporting from the other side of the glass in a way which is not, strictly speaking, OK but is filled with such innocence and unspoken connection that it largely overcomes the otherwise unpalatable quality of his stalkerish devotion. Gwan-woo is, in a sense, a man who’s unafraid to fall, secure in his ties to the world and literally anchored by his position in society. Seo-young yearns to overcome her sense of anxiety, find firm footing and a sense of support, at once reassured by the presence of Gwan-woo and perhaps disturbed by it. She is, however, feeling her way back to solid ground, gaining the desire to climb safe in the knowledge that someone will be there to catch her even when she feels like falling.
International trailer (English subtitles)