The New York Asian Film Festival runs from August 28 to September 12. For more information, click here.
Lucky Chan-sil opens with an elderly filmmaker holding court over a group of younger acolytes, spouting philosophies of cinema and presiding over a raucous drinking game. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but while taking in the spirit of liveliness one can’t help but notice the music that plays over it all, a strangely bombastic version of Chopin’s Funeral March. Not an entirely encouraging portent. And sure enough, the filmmaker does not survive the opening credits.
It’s a dark joke, and one that might lead viewers to get the wrong idea about the gentle, sweet natured coming-of-middle-age drama that follows. And yet at the same time, it is a perfect encapsulation of the oddness around the edges of the film, which slowly but surely begins to work its way into the center.
In the aftermath of the death of Director Ji (played in a brief yet delightful cameo by Seo Sang-won), his loyal and steadfast producer Producer Lee Chan-Sil (Kang Mal-geum) finds herself adrift at the age of 40. She rents out a room in a house owned by the eccentric old lady listed in the credits as Granny (Youn Yuh-jung) and sets out to find work. But despite the positive reassurances of her loyal (younger, male) production team, her age and the death of her previous employer seem to have put her on a blacklist; no jobs are forthcoming, and for all intents and purposes she has been bounced from the industry.
Lee gets a job as a housekeeper for her friend Sophie, a flighty, scatterbrained actress who flits from hobby to hobby and (it’s heavily implied) drinks just a little bit more than she should. And this is the life Producer Lee finds herself living, very much against her best hopes, all of which involve somehow getting back into the world of film, her lifelong obsession.
As written and directed by Kim Cho-hee, Lucky Chan-sil has an interesting way of reflecting the interior journey of its depressed heroine in it’s rhythms. The first act almost feels like a series of blackout sketches as Producer Lee adjusts to her new circumstances. Her frequent trips to a lemon tree, the inexplicable and unremarked upon appearances of a man rushing about in his underwear, her visits with Sophie, each time revealing another new talent she’s trying to master, each one more absurd than the last, the seemingly throwaway gag about a room Chan-sil is forbidden from ever entering… the first twenty or so minutes are a collection of details that border on the surreal, but still feel grounded enough to be plausible; life can indeed feel deeply strange at times, especially when one is flailing in distress.
And make no mistake, Lee Chan-sil is a figure in extreme distress. Kang Mal-geum is the heart and soul of this picture, and her aura of subdued yet barely contained desperation goes a long way towards making the film work. There’s a version of this character that is played very shrill, and very broad and telegraphs every last but of emotion, but Mal-geum turns it all inward, creating a hilarious, endearing and always deeply empathetic portrayal of a woman coming to terms with her circumstances and struggling to maintain a foothold in an industry that she desperately loves, but that steadfastly refuses to love her back.
There is, it has to be said, a romance element to all this: while in her capacity as Sophie’s housekeeper, Producer Lee makes the acquaintance of Young (Bae Yu-ram), a slightly younger French tutor who strikes her fancy. An awkward courtship of sorts ensues, but I’m hesitant to bring it up since the way it resolves itself is another one of the small unexpected pleasures of the film, and it’s best to let that unfold for the viewer without spoiling the ride. But at the same time, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the scene where she first takes Young out for a drink, because it’s so vital to understanding her character and her headspace. Plus it results in a priceless dig at Christopher Nolan, which I am always here for.
Young, an aspiring writer director of short films, engages Producer Lee in a conversation about cinema, and we get a glimpse into her genuine and all-encompassing passion for film… only to see her romantic hopes dashed upon the rocks of her intendeds less-than-enthusiastic response. Too subdued to be considered a set piece, this scene still captures with painful accuracy the sensation of crushing on someone, discovering where you diverge pop culture wise, trying to move past it and failing utterly.
Us judge-y film nerds? We’ve all been there..
That’s not the end of their story by a long shot, merely another bump in the road in a life that for Producer Lee, at an age where she is considered washed up and too old to make a good wife, seems to be almost entirely bumps. As well as one gonzo reveal I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. But watching her persevere, try to rebuild her life and in the process discover who she truly is and what she truly wants going forward… it’s a weird, wild, wonderful journey, one well worth taking.