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.
The 22nd annual New York Asian Film Festival took place between July 14 and July 30. For more information on what you missed, click here.
Greenhouse has been billed as a thriller, and ultimately it is, though it takes an extraordinarily different path to get there than personal festival favorite Geylangs’ more visceral approach. It is nothing if not a slow burn, more akin to a psychological drama than a nail biting seat clencher. So much so that at a certain point I found myself checking out of the narrative; when one utterly predictable plot turn was followed by a fairly ludicrous one, it shattered my suspension of disbelief and I just waited for what felt like the inevitable so I could move on to the next, hopefully better, flick.
It’s good to be wrong sometimes.
As it turns out, Greenhouse is playing the long game; once again I cackled when I realized what the film was actually up to, and the cascading series of bad luck, bad decisions, and terrible consequences that both feel out of nowhere but also inevitable made me regret ever having doubted writer/director Lee Solhui.
If you have doubts, stick with this one; it gets gooooooood.
Lee Moon-jung (Kim Seohyung) is a troubled woman who is doing her best to put a brave face on. Her son, in juvenile detention for reasons that aren’t particularly important, will be released soon, and she’s pinning all her hopes on getting a new apartment for them to live in, a prospect he seems to reject outright. As it currently stands, she spends her nights at a remote greenhouse in which she’s carved out a messy but functional living space. Her day job, as a caretaker for blind, elderly Lee Tae-Kang (Yang Jaesung) and his Alzeheimer suffering wife Hwa-ok (Shin Yuensook), affords her access to a car and human contact; aside from the free group therapy sessions she attends, she doesn’t seem very capable of human connection at all.
That changes, sort of, when she befriends another member of the group, the clearly unstable Soon-nam. Fresh off a suicide attempt and the death of her mom, Soon-nam takes a liking to Lee Moon-jung, and circumstances lead Moon-jung to invite her to stay for a couple of days to get away from an abusive partner.
Like all acts of kindness in films of this nature, it’s a move that may or may not come back to haunt her.
These early scenes, all based in the quotidian details of day-to-day life, do draw you in. There’s no sense of tension, no sense of impending doom, just an overall pall of depression, with flashes of wry humor (the leader of the group therapy sessions generates no small amount of giggles with her inane platitudes and performative cheeriness).
But, of course, things start creeping in around the edges. Hwa-ok has periodic fits of rage in which she hits Tae-Kang or accuses Lee of wanting to kill her and her son; Lee is warned that Soon-nam drove a previous member of the group away with her obsessive behavior; the kindly old man gets some very bad news… things don’t even remotely start out happy. But, as it turns out, they can always get worse.
But there are moments of kindness and minor joys interspersed throughout, mostly involving Tae-Kang: a lovely sequence in which Lee finds a way for him to drive a car despite being blind; when he meets up with
It’s nice to have these things to hang onto when everything goes terribly, terribly wrong.
Obviously I’m not going to spoil the incident that takes place roughly halfway through that kicks the thriller elements into Medium Gear (slow burn, remember), but while it is a moment that seems almost inevitable as soon as the specter is raised, the action that follows rests on a coincidence of timing and a completely unmotivated turn from a character that, frankly, isn’t well-developed enough for the whole thing to seem like anything other than a painful contrivance. You can see the strings being pulled, which is never good for a movie of this kind.
And for me personally, it really impacted the next scene, which is as close to a conventional thriller set piece as the movie gets; a genuinely Hitchcockian episode that would have worked so much better for me if it hadn’t been set up in such a hackneyed way. And yet, divorced from all of that, it’s a highly effective sequence.
The film then proceeds to go even further down the rabbit hole with a twist that comes out of absolutely nowhere, involving a character that hasn’t even been properly introduced yet. But in its way, this almost worked for me; it’s an absolute contrivance, but it’s also such a wild swing that even though I was on the verge of rejecting the premise, I had a deep curiosity about where all of this could possibly be going.
And that patience was rewarded. It turns out this twist adds psychological texture to an earlier reveal, and plays with the films themes in a very intriguing way. And as the characters’ bad decisions start piling up, the film makes great use of its jagged edges; it’s not a case of all the threads coming together, as it is everything falling apart with a kind of deranged yet inevitable logic, an anti-Rube Goldberg trap that still destroys everything and everyone in its path.
The more I reflect on Greenhouse, the more what I initially perceived as flaws sink into the background, as the end product proves a bleak, compelling and original vision of a woman in trouble. It’s not the most elegant piece of work, but its cumulative force cannot be denied.