Greenhouse (2022)

Greenhouse screened at London Korean Film Festival 2023. This is a longer version of my on-stage introduction (plus programme note)

Greenhouse gets its title from the off-road, metal framed structure in which single mother Lee Moon-jung (Kim Seo-hyung) is living. More tent than home, with plastic sheeting for walls, and designed to house plants, this greenhouse is far from ideal as a human habitation. Yet needs must, and in all its makeshift shabbiness, this temporary housing arrangement encapsulates the present ruin of Moon-jung’s domestic life. She is divorced and has lost her home in the split, she has little money, and her beloved son Jung-woo (Kim Geon) is currently in juvenile detention, while her relationship with her own mother Choon-hwa (Won Mi-won), now residing in a care home, is loveless and indifferent, even toxic. Moon-jung is isolated and mentally fragile, engaging alone in acts of self-harm – and although she can be considerate and outwardly respectable, her damage is deep-rooted and threatens, if unattended, to infect others, like rot in a plant.

In fact Greenhouse is about three different dysfunctional domestic arrangements over three generations, and the quasi-familial relationships that Moon-jung forms across these. Moon-jung works as a carer for blind old Tae-kang (Yang Jae-sung) and his severely demented wife Hwa-ok (Shin Yun-sook). Tae-kang recognises Moon-jung’s patience and kindness, and reciprocates by treating her as his own daughter – while his real adult son Kyu-sang (Seo Hong-seok) lives elsewhere with his own family. Yet Moon-jung’s consideration and care do not extend to her actual mother, who seems to be at the root of her self-loathing. Unable to afford to continue seeing a psychiatrist for her own problems, Moon-jung joins a free, and almost comically inadequate, therapy group, where she meets Soon-nam (Ahn So-yo), a similarly damaged, needy teen young enough to be Moon-jung’s daughter and herself desperate for a mother and rôle model like Moon-jung.   

In other words, Greenhouse is a story of substitutions. All these characters supplement what is missing in their own lives from the lives of others. Even as Moon-jung serves as pious daughter figure to her elderly employers, she is a mother figure (and rôle model) to Soon-nam – and these new relationships, though stopgap and imperfect, work for the moment, giving everyone what they need for the time being, in much the same way that the greenhouse serves as Moon-jung’s provisional home. Yet when an unexpected accident occurs, Moon-jung will engage in a different act of substitution that can obviously only be a very temporary measure, and then struggles to maintain her flimsy domestic façade as reality keeps threatening to expose her to outside elements. Her moment of madness, fuelled by a monomaniacal need to be reunited with her son, will ramify and spread like fire, leading to a combustible scenario where in the end everybody gets burned.

With its portrait of obsessive, unhinged maternity, Greenhouse obviously evokes Bong Joon-ho‘s Mother (2009), while the greenhouse of its title, and the incendiary events at its end, also recall Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018). Certainly this feature shares both those films’ bleak assessment of the human condition. It may assume the guise of a genre-bound thriller, and boast sequences of genuinely Hitchcockian suspense as Moon-jung struggles against all hope and reason to keep her fanciful deception going – but the film is also grounded in two very real social issues that constitute taboos in Korea:  the stigma of mental illness; and the break-up of traditional family structures, with the concomitant outsourcing of care for the elderly. Both these issues come together to create a very modern tragedy where someone who is in no way a bad person does very bad things out of precarity and desperation, and her every attempt to cover her tracks threatens to bring the whole (green)house of cards crashing down around her. This is a striking debut from writer/director Lee Sol-hui, masterfully putting all its pieces in place to form a mosaic portrait of a complicated, messy woman in trouble and on the edge.

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Programme note: Greenhouse-inhabiting Moon-jung (Kim Seo-hyung) is a messy, contradictory figure – bitterly divorced, desperate to find a new home for when her teenage son is released from juvenile detention centre , solicitous towards the elderly wife suffering from dementia and her blind husband (Yang Jae-sung) whom she looks after for a living while indifferent to her own care-home mother, and identifying a little too closely with the abandoned, abused young woman (Ahn Soyo) whom she has met at a community group for people prone to self-harm.

Moon-jung does harm herself, but also others, as her own deep damage ramifies outwards. Lee Sol-hui’s feature is an elliptical portrait of a complicated woman, sent spiralling when an accident and its aftermath lead to Hitchcockian tensions. With its central greenhouse setting and narrative ambiguities, this subtle, suggestive feature is like Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) regendered – and similarly bleak in its assessment of the human condition.

strap: Lee Sol-hui’s bleak feature debut is a tense, tragic thriller of mental illness, dissolving family and homelessness

© Anton Bitel