Climbing (Keul-la-i-ming) (2021)

Climbing (Keul-la-i-ming) screens at the London Korean Film Festival, 18 Nov, 2021

In Climbing (Keul-la-i-ming), developed from writer/director Kim Hye-mi’s debut project for the Korean Academy of Film Arts’ feature animation course, Choi Se-hyeon (voiced by Kim Min-ji) is under a lot of pressure. A solo climber absolutely committed to her craft and hoping to win the coming World Championships, she has emerged from a recent car accident unscathed, but for the loss of an embryo inside her that she was not sure she wanted to bring to term anyway. Her boyfriend Lee Woo-in (Goo Ji-won) keeps pushing her to relax her training schedule, get married and settle down. She worries that she is being displaced by younger, prettier rival Kim Ah-in (Park Song-yi) on the climbing wall, as well as in the affections of their coach (Park Joo-gwang) – and possibly of Woo-in too. No matter how precarious her situation, Se-hyeon has an absolute drive to surmount every obstacle and difficulty in her way, and to rise above her pain and stress – but she is also deeply anxious, and her anxieties are about to tear her apart and quite literally divide her self.

On a cracked smartphone that was damaged during the car accident and has not worked since, Se-hyeon starts receiving text messages and calls from… Se-hyeon. Only this second Se-hyeon is an alter ego in an alternative universe: she did not lose her baby in the accident, but was herself severely injured so that she is now wheelchair-bound in the rural home of Woo-in’s sinisterly solicitous mother No In-hwa (also voiced by Park Song-yi). Waiting for Woo-in’s return, or at least for a call from him, Se-hyeon increasingly feels a prisoner to the not-quite mother-in-law who seems to be more interested in the unborn baby’s health than in Se-hyeon’s.

With these stories unfolding in parallel, the two Se-hyeons come to realise that they are connected by more than just a broken mobile phone. The able-bodied Se-hyeon now shares – impossibly – the pregnancy of the disabled Se-hyeon, as though both are joined by a red umbilical cord not unlike the safety ropes with which they climb. Yet as this narrative – which began with Se-hyeon dreaming of the foetus within – becomes ever more unnervingly oneiric, and as the already irrational film assumes a brand of horror which emphasises Se-hyeon’s mounting loss of control over both her physical surroundings and her own body, Climbing becomes a locked-in drama of a woman’s ever loosening grip on her life. 

There is a tendency in modern computer-generated 3D animation to approach a kind of photorealism, but Climbing instead unnaturally, even grotesquely highlights the sunken shadows on Se-hyeon’s face and the spare muscle and sinew of her body. While the backgrounds are hyperreal, and Se-hyeon’s movements, especially when climbing, are rendered with precise detail, the visual stylisations, shifting ever further from naturalism, are suggestive both of nightmare and of a neurotic mindset.  In the end, the film will find a way meaningfully to synthesise all the most surreal paranoid delusions of a protagonist who has become severed both from herself and from choice – but nonetheless, this remains throughout a portrait of a woman on the edge, as her own and her baby’s life hang in the balance, and by a thread.  

strap: Kim Hye-mi’s unnerving animated feature depicts an anxious professional climber on the edge and divided from herself.

© Anton Bitel