“What is love? Have you seen it?” a dejected young man asks, wondering how if he can’t even afford a ticket to the movies he’s supposed to find the energy to feel love. Love may be the substance the title of Park Jung-bum’s nearly three hour epic of human misery Not in this World (이 세상에 없는, I Sesange Oebsneun) refers to, each of its wandering youngsters deprived of a sense of hope or of emotional fulfilment by the cruelties of contemporary capitalism. Unable to feel their own pain, they inflict it on others, their despair leading to nothing other than violence and cruelty in a mistaken effort to exert control over their lives.
Despair colours the lyrics that aspiring rapper Ji-su (Moon Ye-ji) performs in a courtyard by day detailing her insecurity and longing for “a warm spring to melt my frozen heart”. Seemingly no one is very interested in listening to her, least of all her father in whose tiny workshop she also toils. With his business strained, Ji-su’s father is an exploitative employer berating his daughter for not working hard enough while otherwise telling her that she is free to do something else with her life but only if it makes money. After smashing her microphone in a mistaken attempt to make her come around, he later burns her sheet music and recklessly tells her to find somewhere else to live while she in turn points out that he unfairly projects his resentment onto her knowing that his dream of owning a family home will never become a reality seeing as the business barely makes enough money to pay the interest on the mortgage he will never be able to pay off.
This sense of despair born of failure passing from one generation to the next leaves Ji-su and her similarly troubled friends with an even greater sense of futility. She discovers a temporary source of hope after accidentally bonding with a strange middle-aged man, a kind of holy fool living all alone in the forest in a house he calls a “spaceship” seeing as it’s surrounded by complete darkness with only he aboard as if existing in an entirely different dimension. Jeong-cheol (Park Jung-bum) is Ji-su’s only “fan”, encouraging her with her music but also infinitely naive advising her to share it with her friends and family in the conviction that they would then begin to understand her but the result is quite the reverse. Ji-su’s few friends, all of whom have become sex workers, simply laugh at her while apparently offended by what they perceive as “hypocrisy”, an attempt to exploit their pain for her gain.
Forced at knife point to witness the reality of sex work, Ji-su’s illusions are shattered while her only other source of hope in her relationship with intense childhood friend Won-ho (Park Young-Duk) also begins to crumble. Won-ho too had a dream, working as a delivery driver while saving up to buy a taxi license he hopes will enable him to earn a steady living leading to a traditional middle-class sense of stability with a wife and family home. Yet he too is eventually forced to acknowledge his dream won’t come true, again projecting his sense of resentment onto Ji-su in unfairly blaming her for a bike accident that brought them both into contact with a source of infinite corruption that is a remote sex work campsite hidden in the woods where a gang of obnoxious rich kid students get their kicks humiliating those they perceive as their social inferiors.
Pushed to breaking point, Ji-su commits a transgression of her own and embarks on a path of self-destruction aiming to become what she hates and burn her world to the ground. Becoming the campsite’s bookkeeper she terrorises the former friends who laughed at her song and left her with lasting trauma while taking an indirect revenge against Won-ho for his indifference towards her. While she decides to become an oppressor in order not to be oppressed, Jeong-cheol wrestles with himself believing that he cannot abandon Ji-su because to do so would mean she had been abandoned by the world, while also realising that the world has many Ji-sus and he can’t help them all. Jeong-cheol believes himself alone, conversing only with the ghost of his late father who seems to represent his inner goodness something which he alternately feels he should bury along with his father’s ashes yet is unwilling to part with.
Unlike Park’s previous films of similar length and bleakness, Not in This World swaps crushing naturalism for a touch of magical realist imagery as Park’s holy fool tries to repair the world around him armed only with his own inner goodness which simultaneously makes him an exile of contemporary society. Even as Ji-su continues to destroy herself, Jeong-cheol continues to believe she can be saved, his conviction perhaps borne out as the traumatic events of the film’s conclusion appear to break the spell she’s cast over herself though whether she will ever be able to accept everything that led her there is far less easy to discern. Once again an attack on an inhuman, ultra capitalist society defined by class conflict and petty humiliation, Park’s latest epic of human misery is also in its closing minutes at least quietly hopeful in the innocent power of a newborn baby’s cries.
Trailer (English subtitles)