Clytaemnestra (Ougie Pak, 2021)

Art and life begin to blur for an indie theatre troupe rehearsing a Greek tragedy in Ougie Pak’s meta take on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon tellingly retitled Clytaemnestra. Filmed at speed during an acting workshop in Greece, Pak’s indie drama is part exploration of a hothouse backstage environment and part meditation on power dynamics which are, the film seems to suggest, more or less unchanged in the intervening 2500 years since the play was first performed. 

Successful actress Hye Bin (Kim Haru) has taken time out from her busy schedule to work with a famous director on the production of an ancient Greek play to be staged at the Theatre of Dionysus itself. The mostly female cast, the only male actor on hand to play the part of Agamemnon, will all stay together in a large rental house throughout the rehearsal process which aside from anything else is an extremely claustrophobic environment. The director (Kim Jongman), meanwhile, seems to be of the break them down school but isn’t so fussed on building them back up. Behaving more like an authoritarian school teacher than a creative collaborator, he operates through shame and humiliation. Showing the cast a video of traditional production, he attempts to workshop through asking each of them for their immediate takeaways on having just seen the play performed but treats each of the answers with condescension instantly shutting down one young actress’ assertion that she saw “Han” in Aeschylus’ script as if directly preventing her from finding common ground between her own culture and a Greek play from thousands of years ago. 

For one reason or another, Hye Bin becomes a particular target for his disdain. When he brings in another actress fresh from Seoul, Ian (Kim Taehee) who arrives with her own assistant, the tensions only rise. Perhaps spotting her rival, Ian encourages the low level bullying of Hye Bin while she becomes irritated and confused on noticing the inappropriate intimacy between the actress and her director. The other members of cast meanwhile find themselves conflicted, often bullied themselves into going along with Ian and the director seemingly too panicked to resist as male actor Jung Hwan (Kim Junghwan) later claims not quite apologising for not having stood up for Hye Bin but apparently embarrassed to have been bamboozled into saying something he didn’t really think was true. 

In the ongoing meta drama, the director is an Agamemnon behaving like a tyrannical king bullying his actors in order, he claims, to get the performances he wants. Attacked by Ian, both verbally and physically, Hye Bin accuses her of using her sexuality to improve her career prospects and thereby indirectly the director of abusing his position to take advantage of potentially vulnerable actresses, provoking a hugely inappropriate confrontation which leads only to threats, violence, and eventual exile. We already know how this play ends, though the director is perhaps so secure in his status, his patriarchal authority, and the “respect” he inspires as a renowned practitioner that it doesn’t occur to him he will have to answer for his behaviour even as he threatens to have Hye Bin blacklisted ensuring she’ll never work in this town or any other ever again and all for the crime of some harsh but true words along with an insistence on maintaining her self-respect through gaining a mutual apology. 

“As soon as we see ego we stop seeing the story” the director barks, denying Hye Bin even her personhood in demanding she disappear into the role in which he casts her. Hye Bin meanwhile has begun having ominous visions perhaps linked to the fluidity of her personae, caught between the mad prophetess and the murderous wife, or else the intensity of the rehearsal process with its myriad petty humiliations. Set mainly within the liminal space of the rented villa where the cast drink Greek beer and are forced to “express themselves” with “feedback” offered in the form of self criticism, Pak’s claustrophobic if occasionally ethereal drama is, as Hye Bin puts it in her original verdict, to some a tale of “justice” as much as “vengeance”, the takedown of a tyrant whose dismissive snarling of the word “feminism” in Hye Bin’s reading of the play may have told us all about him that we needed to know. 


Clytaemnestra screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival