NYAFF 2019: It’s Time to MOVE THE GRAVE

The New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 28th to July 14th, 2019. For more information, click here.

When all is said and done, there really isn’t all that much to first time director Jeong Seung O’s Move The Grave, a darkly deadpan Korean comedy that seems to luxuriate in the low-key awfulness of each and every one of its characters. It’s a simple story, simply told. But there’s a certain charm in its lack of artifice. If one can tune into its very specific mood (and can stand to spend ninety minutes with these characters who are, again, uniformly awful), then there is some emotional catharsis to be had here.

The Baek siblings find themselves reunited on the occasion of having to relocate their late father’s corpse due to a construction project encroaching on the grave site. The four daughters reluctantly make the journey to their stern uncle’s house to make arrangements and commemorate the occasion. But as solemn an occasion as this may be, the siblings find themselves only barely able to put aside their old grudges or current troubles long enough to decide where to stop for lunch, let alone honor their dearly departed patriarch.

Who, it has to be said, may not have been quite so deserving of such tribute in the first place.

If there is anything close to a hero in his story, which there is not, then it is almost certainly single mom Hye-Yeong. Much of the movie takes place within the confines of her car, where the resentments and hostilities burble up, a series of alternately passive aggressive and aggressive aggressive verbal volleys that inevitably result in the car pulling over (if never quite turning around the way everyone so clearly wants to do).

Her story is the first one the viewers bear witness to, playing out as a series of Job-like punishments: in short order, she is let go from her job, her delinquent son Dong-min gets in trouble at school, and she finds herself again thrust into the midst of a family she seems desperate to avoid. And the quiet, thwarted dignity with which she handles all of this makes her roughly as sympathetic as anyone in the family… and that she manages to maintain that sympathy even after a reveal about her lack of parenting skills counts as one of the sharpest, darkest gags in the entire film.

There is a small monetary compensation for the inconvenience of moving the grave site, which serves as a further wedge between the siblings, each of whom reveals themselves to be in a certain amount of financial need. The engaged Geum-hee seems most desperate for it, trying to guilt a silently wavering Hye-Young into letting her keep the entire sum. Her situation seems bleak, but when we’re introduced to her hilariously muted sackcloth of a fiancee, it becomes patently obvious that would be money down the drain on a marriage that probably shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

Indeed, as selfish as the women of Move The Grave can come off, they’re small potatoes compared to the men, who are uniformly awful. Dong-min is a truly, truly terrible child, and despite meek sister Guem-ok’s fear of their bellicose uncle, he quickly reveals himself to be an immature, wildly patriarchal curmudgeon who throws a tantrum every time things don’t go exactly as he wants them; not a figure of fear so much as a figure ridiculous in his inability to cope. But worst of all is almost certainly Seung-rak, the only son and world class deadbeat, avoiding any and all conflict like the plague and barely able to function when his chickens come home to roost.

While everyone gets at least one moment of humanizing empathy, the film is merciless in skewering the weak-willed and cowardly Seung-rak; nobody likes him, nobody respects him, and the only power he has is in having been born the right gender. And yet… the film even affords a moment of understanding to him as well (though not so much that his final scenes in the film don’t amount to a hilariously unsentimental sendoff). Because in the end, as much anger, bitterness, and well-earned discord as these siblings have accumulated over the years, the film recognizes their flawed humanity, and does its best to afford them a hard earned sort of dignity.

Move The Grave isn’t a showy film, nor one that is open with its layers; it’s hushed, naturalistic patterns might not work for viewers unwilling to put in a little bit of the work. But it manages to find the humanity in some pretty terrible people, and that’s not nothing.

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