When Isshin Inudo’s adaptation of the 1984 short story by Seiko Tanabe Josée, The Tiger and The Fish was released back in 2003, it quickly gained popularity across Asia and is fondly remembered by many as a melancholy love story neatly anticipating the junai boom that would arrive a year later. Nevertheless, almost 20 years on the film’s depiction of disability might seem very of its time while its heavy focus on the male hero’s internal conflict realising that in the end he wasn’t strong enough to fight for love may also seem misplaced. Very loosely inspired by the same short story, Kim Jong-kwan’s Josée (조제) while still largely told from the hero’s point of view does its best to redress the balance in returning agency to the heroine as she resolves to live a freer and more independent life if still to a degree confined by an internal sense of ableism.
As the film opens, Josée (Han Ji-min) is lying in the road having been thrown out of her electric wheelchair. Student Young-seok (Nam Joo-hyuk) comes to her rescue, grabbing a nearby stool while inspecting the chair only to discover the wheel is broken and the power is out. Thinking quickly he borrows a wheelbarrow from a storeowner and takes both her and the wheelchair back to her home where he’s treated to a meal but also endures Josée’s scorn, she feeling quite ambivalent thinking that she should repay his kindness but also not really wanting to engage with him. Young-seok meanwhile is somewhat captivated by her mystery, later helping her grandmother out after spotting her struggling with a heavy cabinet in the street and thereafter becoming a regular fixture in the young woman’s home.
Unlike the earlier version, the reasons for Joseé’s largely self-imposed isolation are internal rather than to do with social stigma towards disability or a history of abuse. Nevertheless she harbours a degree of trauma owing to having been abandoned as a child and is reluctant to form close relationships with others which is one reason why she rebuffs Young-seok’s attempts at friendship believing he too would one day leave her while there is also a rather large age gap between them, Young-seok still a student in his early 20s while it appears Josée is at least 10 – 15 years older. Through Young-seok’s intervention Josée discovers that there are systems in place she could go to for support along with community organisations that are keen to help her live independently as an integrated member of society the only reason she had not found them before being her desire for isolation partly caused by the mistaken belief she is wanted by the police.
Young-seok meanwhile despite his earnest desire to help her is still somewhat immature, naively asking his sometime college girlfriend insensitive questions about her rent and living arrangements while unable to understand the consequences of his actions in carrying on an affair with one of his professors and being exploited by another. Josée accuses him of pitying her which he perhaps does but is also drawn to her because of her sense of mystery discovering that little of what she says of herself is true, merely the expression of the escapist fantasies she uses to overcome the inertia of her life. The irony is that Young-seok is attracted to her precisely because of this quality of otherness and unknowability, while through forming a relationship with him she grows to know and love herself, finally accepting that she is worthy of love if also perhaps viewing herself as a burden as if she would trap Young-seok with her in world of isolation unfairly denying him the right to the fullness of the life.
Because of her isolation Josée experiences the world differently, living vicariously through books travelling the world in spirit if not in body. Her marginalisation is compounded by her poverty, unable to afford the things that would make her life easier and unaware that there is help available because of her distrust of of authority figures born of her previous experiences which contributes to her desire for solitude. Yet through her relationship with Young-seok she begins to develop a sense of possibility, embracing her independence in driving an adapted car at the film’s conclusion while reconnecting with a childhood friend and his partner not to mention having a little cat to take care of at home. “I’m OK now, I’m not lonely” she offers, if a little sadly, romanticising the memory of love if not its actuality. Imbued with a deep sense of romantic melancholy, Kim’s richly textured drama nevertheless hands agency back to Josée who finally comes to love and accept herself through loving and being loved by another person seizing her independence to live a full and active life but ready to accept the help and support of others as she does so.
Josée screens 14th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)