Director Lee Sang-woo’s new film, Walking Street, premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) on 25 Nov. Walking Street is Lee Sang-woo’s newest feature film, adding to his existing collection of works that has received international acclaim. His debut, Tropical Manila (2008), was invited to the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Another, Mother is a Whore (2009), was part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival; and Dirty Romance (2015) competed at the SGIFF’s Silver Screen Awards. His unconventional film titles really do set up the audience for an experience that is boundary breaking. Lee Sang-woo’s return to SGIFF this year with Walking Street, continues to astound despite its simple title and low-budget filming.
For those who have not seen the film, there are spoilers in this review. Additionally, there are some potentially triggering aspects of the review dealing with rape and sexual abuse, so please proceed with caution.
The film is set in Pattaya, where Park Tae-gi (Lee Si-kang) and his mute elder brother Park Teae-sung (Baek Sung-hyun) escape to after almost killing a stranger in an alcohol influenced brawl. The brothers encounter Jee-na (Lee Song-lee) separately, each coming to the knowledge that she is exploited by her mother as a Korean prostitute. Both males fall in love with Jee-na and the three characters get entangled in complex love triangle. The weight of estrangement in a foreign land gets increasingly harder to bear for each of them as the family bonds that they hold dear are fractured in the slew of events that unravel in Pattaya. Family, the last strand of hope that these characters believe to be keeping themselves sane, collapses in the conflation of experiences they are forced to undergo.
The rawness of human emotions and expression are exposed in the film, but Lee Sang-woo’s choice to craft Teae-sung as a mute character in the film really demonstrates a cinematic brilliance. Teae-sung communicates through a post-it notepad that he brings around. He is a measured and composed young man, whereas his younger brother Tae-gi is rash and brutish. Tae-gi indulges in alcohol and drugs, sexually harassing girls he sees to the point of rape, the reason behind their escape to Thailand in the first place.
The two brothers present themselves as oppositions onscreen. Teae-sung cannot physically find a voice to communicate his love for his brother, instead doing so through actions by pampering his brother and giving in to Tae-gi’s self-indulgent requests. Teae-sung purchases a scooter for Tae-gi in Thailand after Tae-gi throws a tantrum in the streets. This inability to communicate efficiently ultimately ends up in misunderstandings that corrupts the brotherhood between the two. Tae-gi loses his scooter to Jee-na after sexually harassing her, but after a series of coincidental encounters, ends up in the hands of Teae-sung. Upon knowledge of the encounter between Tae-gi and Jee-na, Teae-sung is bent on teaching his younger brother a lesson to be more restrained. More coincidental encounters ensue that leads Tae-gi to fall in love with Jee-na, while Jee-na and Teae-sung find themselves falling in love with each other.
The lack of communication between the two brothers in this duration of time leads to an eventual misunderstanding when Tae-gi finds out about the relationship between Teae-sung and Jee-na. Tae-gi is overwhelmed by anger and a sense of betrayal, thinking his brother is toying with his feelings. He is driven over the edge, crazed with anger for his brother as well as his obsession with Jee-na who remains unreachable for him. He stops trusting Teae-sung and ends up confronting both of them with threats of violence. The muteness of Teae-sung really speaks of the suffocating atmosphere of unrestrained desires that overflow and engulf the individual, as in the case of Tae-gi. The inability to find a comfortable and efficient conduit to express emotions leads almost inevitably to disaster. The monster that is eventually let lose, like some kind of rabid dog, winds up destroying everything in its path. This devastation manifests itself onscreen in the complete collapse of relationships.
Personally, I find even more striking beyond the brotherhood of the two men, is the utterly heart-breaking suffering Jee-na has to endure as the film progresses. She is exploited by her mother who constantly reiterates to Jee-na that she can only trust her own mother. Jee-na becomes depicted as nothing more than a sex toy to be rented out. Yet, Lee Sang-woo does not cut the audience off with just portraying an objectification of the female body. The audience is made to watch Jee-na raped onscreen, completely stripped bare for both the men within the film and the audience themselves to examine. The heart-wrenching screams each time as she tries to claw her way away from the men provokes an overwhelming helplessness, at least for myself as I watch passively in the movie theatre, which speaks also of the brilliant acting of Lee Song-lee within the film. The use of nudity in the film subverts any possible expectations of sexual promiscuity that might be tied Jee-na’s position as a prostitute. Rather, almost all the scenes involving nudity are contextualised within the abuse of the female body, which raises the multitude of issues concerning rape. Jee-na’s face is blank whenever she lays limp on the bed, her eyes vacant. It is almost as if she has lost her soul in this cruel and transactional dimension of living.
The film pushes the conventional conceptions of love, often romanticised in popular media. Familial bonds exist too within the spectrum of love, and it may not necessarily be as pure as conventionally thought to be. It too can be a tool of manipulation, or one that clouds rational judgement. The film does question then to what extent does family bonds tie the individual down rather than offer a sanctuary. On the other extreme, the lines between love and lust are blurred when passions overwhelm thought. Jee-na finds a small space of comfort with Teae-sung, but it is a short-lived one as their bubble is eventually crushed by jealousies of others. Ultimately, it seems to me that the rabid beast of desires tramples over all possibilities of happiness and hope in this constricting atmosphere of indulgence.
The film depicts the space of Pattaya in the beginning as a place filled with chaos and vibrancy – a street that never sleeps, where the crowd of strangers offers a mask for the two brothers. Long repressed desires can be let lose under the shield of anonymity in Pattaya’s Walking Street – a physical location characterised as the red light district of the Pattaya. Yet, at the end of the film, it transforms itself into one that traps the characters within its chaos. The brothers enter it in hopes of covering up their identity but they end up losing their sense of self entirely. It is as though they are enclosed within an eternal night as they wander within Pattaya’s Walking Street, bombarded by its flashing neon signs and blaring music. They cannot see clearly, hear each other clearly or even walk straight as long as they remain within it. Perhaps, the final scene of the movie, locating itself on an empty beach, then points towards a catharsis that can only occur by extracting themselves from the stifling environment of the Walking Street.
The film really captures the audience in its emotional depth that is packaged within a simple overlay of a small cast and low budget filming. It is a tiring film to watch despite it being only 88 minutes long. I left the movie theatre feeling as though I had divested all my energy in dealing with the immense emotional struggles that played out before me. Nonetheless, it is a film that marvelously depicts the intensity of human emotions at its extreme made ever more vivid and real through its simplicity.