Open the Door screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2023. This is the text (more or less) of my on-stage introduction.
There has recently been a spate of films, like Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2020), Anthony Shim’s Riceboy Sleeps (2022) and Celine Song’s Past Lives (2023), that deal with the Korean diaspora in North America, and so examine that strange clash of alienation and assimilation, of rootlessness and realignment, which all exiles must learn to negotiate in realising their shifting identities in a new world. Open The Door certainly belongs to this subgenre. Although its four main characters are Korean nationals, and mostly talk in Korean, they are all living in New Jersey, and at least two of them, Chi-hoon (Seo Young-joo) and his older sister Yoon-ju (Kim Soo-jin), have adopted English names – respectively, Tommy and Katherine – to fit into their new environment, and use those names when addressing each other. These characters’ aspirations – for their own home, their own business, their own car – neatly dovetail with the American Dream, although, unlike Minari, this is a film very much about the souring of that dream, as a new generation falls terribly short of its predecessor’s standards, and as doors of opportunity close as much as open.
In its opening sequence, Chi-hoon visits his sister’s husband Moon-suk (Lee Soon-won) for the first time in a good long while. Although he hesitates at the front door, Chi-hoon is warmly welcomed by Moon-suk, and the two brothers-in-law spend the evening drinking whisky, eating home-made kimchi, and reminiscing together. At first they recall the good old days, when Chi-hoon was happier – their first meeting many years ago when Chi-hoon was 16 years old and had just come over to the United States with Yoon-ju and their mother (Kang Ae-sim), and the time when the family’s dry-cleaning business was doing so well that their mother was able to buy outright their rented home – the very house in which Moon-suk and Yoon-ju now live together as husband and wife, and which Chi-hoon is now visiting.
Yet as the drinking continues, the talk turns maudlin. Chi-hoon is still raw with grief and anger about the murder of his mother five years ago, and he also tentatively addresses the real reason he has come over: to find out why Moon-suk has started beating Yoonju. As the conversation becomes heated, Moon-suk blurts out something that cannot be unsaid, and it begins to look unclear whether either of these brothers-in-law will be able to come out of their drinking session alive.
That is just the first of five formally headed chapters that make up Jang Hang-jun’s film which, at just 71 minutes, is very short for a Korean feature, even if it comes packed with emotion and incident. Like Chi-hoon and Moon-suk’s nostalgic recollections, Open The Door keeps looking to the past, heading further and further back in time. For it belongs to a small set of films that tell their story in a reverse chronological order – films like Oldrich Lipsky’s Happy End (1967), Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), François Ozon’s 5×2 (2005), and of course that backward-looking masterpiece of the Korean New Wave, Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (2000). This (mostly) reverse-running narrative allows us to see a family’s decline, both economic and moral, unravelling backwards, from horrific, violent end to sunny, optimistic beginning.
“How the hell did we end up in this situation ?” Moon-suk will ask, and later: “Why am I in this shit? How did I end up like this? …why the fuck are we in this mess?” Yet Open The Door traces the mysterious workings of effect and cause, of aftermath and origin, of execution and intention, revealing this family’s tragic implosion as utterly avoidable, yet – paradoxically – prescribed. It also unfolds in the appealing key of noir, full of tension, greed, betrayal, crime, tension and even a manipulative femme fatale. I hope you enjoy it.
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Programme note: Five economic chapters, told in reverse order, stage pivotal moments in the breakdown of a Korean migrant family’s hopes for a better life in New Jersey, as Chi-hoon (Seo Young-joo), his sister Yoon-ju (Kim Soo-jin) and older brother-in-law Moon-suk (Lee Soon-won) say things that cannot be unsaid, do things that cannot be undone, and open and close different doors. Here the American dream of prosperity proves as much poison (and prison) as incentive, tearing the second generation of this once close-knit clan apart.
Writer/director Jang Hang-jun has crafted a taut neo noir, complete with a femme fatale and a treacherously murderous plot. At a spare 72 minutes, this uses its structure of nested narratives to throw its revelations of character into chaotic disorder, and to show causation moving in purposeful, if mysterious ways, as guilty intentions are as inevitably – if only eventually – punished as guilty actions.
strap: Jang Hang-jun’s noirish feature shows the decline of a Korean migrant family in reverse, from bitter end to sunny beginning
© Anton Bitel