The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
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I did, in my own way, actually feel like something of a tourist myself while watching Kwak Eun-mi’s thoughtful, wary drama A Tour Guide. It’s a story suffused with geopolitical nuance and ethnographic complexities that, as an American, I could only ever play at a full understanding. So it’s to this movie’s credit that despite having difficulty being able to grasp all the dynamics at play, I was thoroughly involved and occasionally moved by the emotional throughline and the strong performances.
The film starts in 2015, as North Korean defector Han-Young (Lee Sul) begins her training for the job of tour guide to Chinese tourists in South Korea; her time as a refugee in China has garnered her some fluency in the language, and her plainly stated ambition is to make a lot of money.
For an outsider such as myself, there was an almost anthropological interest in these early moments, which do a good job of delineating the rules and customs of the business, full of minor details that both paint in the edges of the world and give us insight into the character of Han-Young. Whether furtively taping torn up notes in the bathroom or chugging a beer with all the gusto of a fraternity pledge, there’s an aloofness and a certain quietude in Sul’s performance that makes her sense of displacement and loneliness all too palpable.
Han-Young’s first experience as a tour guide is a vaguely mortifying one, with her arriving late, failing to captivate the audience with her patter and getting stuck babysitting the kid of one of the tourists as they go to look around on their own, dead-ending in a failed attempt to get anyone to buy anything from the shop at the end of the tour (it turns out tour guides under this program work mainly off commission on products sold). But on the advice of her friend and fellow national Jung-mi (Oh Gyeong-hwa), she buttons down to really get a handle on the wants and needs of her potential “customers”; cue endearing montage of her googling ‘what do Chinese people like?’ and ‘what do South Koreans eat’.
And so I had just naturally assumed the movie would be a kind of look at the ins and outs of this specialized tour guide industry, tracing her gradual acclimation and rise up the ranks.
But as it turns out, the film has much larger ambitions in mind.
Han Young’s story unfolds over several years, which gives us a broad overview of her life and career amidst the ups and downs of an ever changing political landscape. When we first skip ahead in time to 2016, the outbreak of MERS has slowed tourism down significantly, and Han Young struggles to make ends meet. This gives her more time to brush up on her Chinese (she’s fluent, but perhaps not quite as fluent as she makes herself out to be), explore her general surroundings and try and track down and reconnect with her brother In-hyeok (Jeon Bong-seok), who defected some time before Han Young, but who has since gone off the grid. A visit from Li Xiao (Park Se-hyun), In-hyeok’s girlfriend with dreams of coming to South Korea herself and living with the siblings in one big happy makeshift family, causes complications that threaten Han Young’s ever more precarious lifestyle. And there are more problems to come.
I would be lying if I said I understood every last detail of the things that happened over the course of the film; I had to look up MERS, and a later reference to THAAD sent me right back to Google. But while this aspect or that might have been mildly confusing for me in the moment, the thread underpinning every last moment was never anything less than clear: this is a portrait of isolation, and how the arbitrary notion of borders and their unforeseen, uncontrollable consequences can breed regret and disillusionment like a virus. Han-Young starts out hopeful and optimistic about making a new life for herself, but over the course of several years, finds herself ground down and feeling displaced, with no home to return to. One by one her fellow refugees peel off for more hospitable pastures, leaving almost no one she can turn to except her personal protection officer Tae-gu (Park Jun-hyuk), who is responsible for her safety and assimilation. He is handsome and kind, but frequently little more than a voice over the phone asking her if everything is okay. And, as Jung-mi points out, in a situation as politically heated as the one these nations find themselves in, the differences between protection and surveillance can be marginal at best.
In order to get by Han-Young makes compromises, and then mistakes, but at a certain point is really does feel like the system is set up for her to fail. It’s not in any way meant as an insult to say that by the time the film approaches its conclusion, it’s not so much coming in for a landing as it is deflating; by the time she’s weighed her prospects and comes to an important decision about her future, there’s just a sense of both exhaustion and relief, and there’s something admirably about the final cut to black; almost a return of the determination she showed at the start, but with a newfound steeliness forged in her experiences, both the good and the bad.
And I think that’s the moment I ought to close out on: the good and the bad. I suspect I’ve made this film sound like a bit of a slog with a distinctly downward spiral, and it’s anything but that. Certainly it pulls no punches about the complications and disappointments of life after defection. But it never makes its points at the expense of the moments of joy and human connection that tend to exist in even the toughest of situations. Life isn’t easy for any of the characters here, but they soldier on regardless, learning from their defeats and taking pleasure in the fleeting moments of escapism or beauty. It’s a glancing look at full, complicated lives, and there will always be virtue in films that seek to capture such things. Especially when they’re as skillfully made as this.