Placing itself somewhere between the genres of mumblecore and slice of life, A Quiet Dream directed by Zhang Lu, is an almost observational look into the invisible world of lower class Seoul.
Set in the grimy fringe suburbs of Seoul, A Quiet Dream is a glimpse into the everyday of misfits bound to a life determined by the unlucky cards they were dealt. At the heart of the film is our heroine, Ye-ri (Han Yeri), who runs a small bar at the back of her father’s house. Her mundane ritual of caring for her paralysed father and running the bar is punctuated by daily visits from her three suitors. They are Ik-june (Yang Ik-junean), an ex gangster who was exiled from his gang after laughing at a funeral, Jong-bin (Yoon Jong-bin), Ye-ri’s epileptic landlord and Jeong-beom (Park Jung-bum) a North Korean with “sad eyes”. These oddball suitors with a stooge like dynamic, provide Ye-ri with a fantasy, a fiction and a way to be someone who she is not. When seeing herself in their eyes she is empowered by her reflection and the dreams that they may quietly dream about her.
The film is shot almost entirely in black and white and uses mirrors and peripheral framing to create an almost contained context. In one scene the friends get thrown out of a Korean arthouse film and instead prefer to watch to their video in a surveillance camera, suggesting that their world is the true reflection of Korean society. These cinematic choices visually contrast with Ye-ri’s desire to escape her world and creates a tension between herself and social context. In these small streets, Ye-ri dreams dirty, pays too much in life insurance, flirts with suitors, consults a tarot card reader, dances in public and lives vicariously through cinema and poetry. However she tragically does all of this in a life as paralysed as her father.
If this all sounds rather melancholy and nihilistic, the film is actually a delight to watch. While lacking a driven plot, the interactions between the three suitors and Ye-ri carry the film. They are light, humorous and at times incredibly innocent; the boyish men are her loyal companions and protectors. They drink, laugh, get up to mischief and entertain one another as best as they can, often trying to make fun of a bleak situation. The four find a sanctuary in each other and explore the nooks and crannies of their neighbourhood finding new truths and philosophies in the crumbling street. A poignant scene is when Jeong-beom spoils his friends to a night out saying “Thank you. Without you three I don’t know what I would’ve done”. Interestingly this level of honesty is rarely seen in the film, as the friends play fight and banter choosing to disguise their reality in poetry, jokes or dance. In this way self preservation becomes an indirect theme in this film, with the characters avoiding exposing their thoughts and dreams all too aware of their shared peripheral existence.
A Quiet Dream is a beautifully crafted film that echoes the unattainable dreams of it’s characters through its clever use of cinematics, reflections and framing. The absurdity and mundanity of the scenarios throughout the film, as well as its lack of plot imbue the tone with a dream-like quality. A Quiet Dream succeeds in opening our eyes to Seoul’s invisible underclass, whom confronted with the daily realities of waking life, seek solace in quiet dreams.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
A Quiet Dream screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival, where it was reviewed.