Soulmate (2020)

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

What is in a picture? A person’s portrait can trigger a flood of memories and fancies. It can reflect who we are and how we feel, and offer, through its image of the other, a recognition of the self. It uses refined, often highly artificial techniques to capture or contrive essential truths. It is a moment in time, preserved and sometimes idealised. It is a slice of fleeting reality, carefully focused, framed and mounted. A portrait can be figurative and lifelike, or abstract and enigmatic. Even if it is not the actuality but a mere representation of the person it portrays, it can nonetheless conjure something of their very soul. And while the subject of a portrait is there for all to see, the artist remains an invisible absence. 

There is a portrait at the centre of Soulmate – a portrait which, like the madeleine in Proust’s In Search of Things Past, sends protagonist Mi-so (Kim Da-mi, in mesmerising, mercurial form) down memory lane, to a childhood friendship that began 14 years earlier – and has since ended. From the start, the film is about art and artifice, viewing and vicariousness. Its opening image is of a hand, shown in close-up, which painstakingly uses a pencil to sketch an eye – the very organ through which we ourselves see the image. Then there is a time-leaping cut to the massive completed portrait – of which that eye was just a tiny part. A gallery curator (Kang Mal-geum) is now showing this artwork to single mother Mi-so who, though now older, is obviously the young woman portrayed on the canvas. The gallery has managed to trace Mi-so’s name from a blog which the artist Ha-eun (Jeon So-nee) has been writing since childhood, and which chronicles her relationship with Mi-so. The artist herself has vanished, so the gallery, which is granting an award to Ha-eun’s submitted body of works, hopes that Mi-so might be able to help track down her former friend. Mi-so informs the curator that she has lost touch with Ha-eun. 

In other words, Soulmate is to be a kind of detective story, as well as a nostalgic retreat into memory – for that portrait of Mi-so is a framing device similar to the one in James Cameron’s Titanic: a woman finding her younger self in a picture. As Mi-so reads again through Ha-eun’s blog and some other writings, she is reminded of how she first met Ha-eun at age 11, and the evolution of this odd couple’s relationship over the subsequent years. These flashbacks, which form the bulk of the film’s narrative, look back to two inseparable Best Friends Forever (their younger versions played by Kim Soo-hyung and Ryu Ji-an) who were themselves always looking forward to the future – and the implicit trajectory of this story is towards the present day, and an explanation of the artist’s absence from Mi-so’s life. 

“Take a closer look,” the curator tells Mi-so of Ha-eun’s work. “It looks like a photo, but it’s a drawing. It’s hyperrealism. The entire drawing was done with a pencil.” In fact it is also a reproduction, drawn from a photo of Mi-so which Ha-eun took years earlier – much as Soulmate itself is, for all its moorings in Korean culture, a remake of Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang’s Chinese film Soul Mate (2016), raising questions of where its true authorship lies. Like Ha-eun’s carefully crafted sketches, Min’s film is itself a portrait, although of two people rather than of one. 

Young Ha-eun (Ryu Ji-an) and Mi-so ( Kim Soo-hyung) draw together

When we first meet Ha-eun she is already a keen artist, doodling life-like sketches of her teacher in class – but newcomer Mi-so, who is initially unable to draw at all, will soon, with her friend’s encouragement, become an artist in her own right, her unruly abstract expressionism contrasting with Ha-eun’s cool photorealism. Mi-so and Ha-eun are hardly alike in temperament or outlook, but they have a way of complementing each other’s differences. Ha-eun may hate carrots, and Mi-so broccoli, but they swap these items on their plates to ensure that either one gets what they want. Mi-so’s zany forwardness makes up for Ha-eun’s deep reserve. For a while, they swap rôles, they swap addresses, they swap dreams – of becoming an artist, of living fast and dying young, and of travelling by Trans-Siberian Express to Lake Baikal. They even swap love interest Jin-woo (Byeon Woo-seok). 

Soulmate is at first a breezy picture of an intense friendship, with all the sweet pleasures that a coming-of-age narrative can deliver – but then, as the girls grow up and separate, their relationship becomes more on-again off-again, maintained through letters and occasional, not always easy or comfortable reunions, as they both misread each other. The film too invites misreadings as, like the picture at its core, it conveys its truths and expresses its feelings through a constructed realism sketched with more manipulative artifice than is at first apparent. For if, through this pencil-stroke portrait of Mi-so, the film is also piecing together who, and where, Ha-eun is, we are repeatedly reminded that collaborative media – drawings, blogs, letters, and of course cinema itself too – conceal as much as they reveal, and deceive the eye to create a picture that can be as false as it seems true.

Are you in pictures?: Mi-so (Kim Da-mi) caught in a candid image

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Programme noteSummoned to a gallery to see a giant hyperrealist sketch of herself, single mother Mi-so (Kim Da-mi) denies all knowledge of where Ha-eun (Jeon So-nee), the mysterious woman responsible for the photo-like drawing, might be – and a series of flashbacks show the shifting relationship, over 14 years, between subject and artist, who first met as 11-year-olds on Jeju Island. 

This is a portrait of fleeting youth and of an absent artist. Director Min Yong-keun gradually brings in the melodrama, although like the portraitist at the film’s centre, he also knows how to trick and manipulate the viewer, concealing as much as he reveals in the shadows of an otherwise sunny picture. The director can only claim partial authorship here of what is actually a remake of Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang’s Soul Mate (2016) – but nonetheless he and writer Kang Hyun-joo put their own stamp on the work. 

strap: Portrait of an artist (as a young woman): Min Yong-keun’s meticulous, melancholic rite of passage looks back to art and adolescence, fleeting youth and lasting friendship

© Anton Bitel