Baek Seungbin, “Members of the Funeral” (2008)
An interesting little gem from South Korea that’s flown under the radar of many movie websites, this film probes the relationships within a dysfunctional family whose members have been brought together, as if for the first time, by the funeral of a teenage boy not related to any of them. The plot explores the psychological histories of the husband (Oh Kwangrok, playing a medical professional in denial about his homosexuality and his need for, and to be, a father figure), his estranged wife (Park Myeongsin, a teacher with frustrated ambitions of being a writer) and their remote daughter Ami (Kim Byeol, a schoolgirl with a fixation bordering on necrophilia), and their separate and parallel relationships with the boy, Noh Heejun (Lee Juseung), a fatherless youngster with a flair for writing and a liking for 19th century English Romantic literature. Through Heejun, the three family members find some fulfilment of their desires, to the extent that they try to control him in ways they have learnt from their birth families and early experiences. With his death, they find themselves flung together unexpectedly and discover that the novel he has been writing about a creepy gay man, a teacher and girl is about them!
The movie’s themes can be creepy and sinister for a comedy which might perhaps explain why the film isn’t better known. The characters are hardly attractive people – teacher Mum is a particularly nasty piece of work (but she’s unconsciously emulating her misogynist grandfather literature professor after all) and the daughter’s facial expressions go from one kind of blank to the next kind of blank and the next – and only Heejun might elicit any sympathy at all from the audience as he goes from one family member to the next. The under-acting is deliberate so as to draw viewers’ attention to the characters’ isolation from one another with only Heejun uniting them all. The notion that people in a family can be so self-absorbed and estranged from one another that none of them knows what the others get up to and can’t recognise themselves or their relatives in a schoolboy’s novel makes for a very dark comedy rich in its observation of alienated individuals and their secret hopes, desires, thwarted ambitions, friendships gone forever and lost opportunities.
Admittedly the film is low on tension and its pace can be slow. Viewers might wonder, particularly with the daughter who spends her spare time in the office of a pathologist (the father of a childhood pal who died young) looking at dead bodies, if the film’s going to turn into a B-grade K-horror flick with the girl and Heejun being chased by the childhood pal’s soul through dark streets and alley-ways. There is very little violence though and the film is more quietly gruesome than horrific. How the plot resolves itself in its weaving, side-stepping way, and what the family members will do when confronted with the truth about their secrets, is the thing that has to sustain viewers’ attention to the end; some viewers might find the jumping around from one character’s viewpoint to another’s a bit tiresome and pretentious. Personally I had no problem, perhaps because knowing the characters’ back-stories and how these fed into their obsessions and attempts to manipulate Heejun for their own gain was in itself intriguing.
From a technical point of view, the film can be a little annoying with parts filmed with a hand-held camera; close-ups of actors’ faces while conversation is going on are often jerky when they should be still. This jerkiness might be intended to add some tension to particular scenes, especially those scenes in which the teacher is criticising Heejun and his writing. The jerkiness seems to emphasise the woman’s enjoyment of unnecessarily tearing strips off the boy.
Quite a likeable film in spite of the often unpleasant issues touched on and well worth repeated viewings. “Members of the Funeral” features some excellent acting performances and first-time director Baek shows some flair for unusual narrative and inventive story-telling, if he can only keep the camera steady!