Hitchhiking through the South-North Korean relations
A mysterious man tries to hitchhike in the middle of an empty road ebbing away in torrential rain. Would you take him aboard? And what, if this complete stranger demands you to take him for a drink? That is the beginning of Hitchhiker, the South Korean short film directed by Jero Yun. This gloomy neo-noir drama brings us distressing answers.
The opening shot is a simple, still frame embellished by sepia. The main character sits on an old, rusty train tracks abruptly cut just before the edge of frame, playing with small pieces of rocks to kill the time. The shot enhances a feeling of loneliness that experience the hero. Train tracks may be the metaphor of his life that suddenly was cut, a life without any path to follow, with some beginning, but without end. Now life, that he has to live, is uncertain, incomplete, there is a lack of something vital without which he cannot go further. The shot itself is not a strong one, but is essential for the understanding of the whole film.
Hitchhiker is a linear narrative with one protagonist who, by his actions, tells us his story. He puts on the narrator’s robes, making us follow him. There is also an antagonist, a good policeman with internal problems. Though for a storyteller the differentiation between the protagonist and the antagonist is a matter of structure and creation of characters, for a viewer this distinction is more smooth. Who is the bad one, and who is the good one? The roles are constantly changing in this film.
As well as the potential crime story, the high contrast and dingy colours suggest noir genre. The director and the DOP decided to use mainly long takes which create an atmosphere of stillness, sadness and mystery. There is a lot of beautiful, well-composed shots, e.g. high angle shot of a policeman opening an umbrella in the middle of a downpour (there are also symbolically contrasting two cars: black and white). The simple blocking in a frame is also an advantage to the film, because it allows viewers to concentrate on the story rather than on the sophisticated craft of the director.
The music in Hitchhiker was synchronised and mostly unnoticeable. It aimed to either evoke emotions in viewers or intensify feelings of characters. The editing was invisible as well. There were, however, some jarring exceptions that might have been deliberate or happened due to the lack of shooting material.
Shooting a short film with a small budget and few shooting days is an unbelievably hard task. The Busan based director, Jero Yun, said: “What I can say is that the shooting process was for me, Marcin, Florin Serban and probably the whole crew one process that asked for our complete involvement and concentration. And it’s always helpful to work with people that aim for the same goal and don’t take things easily because sometimes it’s not an easy way out on the set.”
Acting was satisfying in Hitchhiker, it was naturalised, and the parts created by actors had the appearance of method acting. The interesting thing about actors was their accent, which suggested they were not from the capital area of the country. They also used a lot of ‘banmal’ which is a Korean term for talking down to somebody. It is an informal, colloquial way of using the language, which is really hard to spot in this extent in most of the South Korean features.
But what is most interesting are themes appearing in the film and the interpretation of the whole Hitchhiker. What is unusual for a South Korean film, short or feature, are references to North Korea. When you ask a regular South Korean about their northern neighbours, they would probably say not much about them. Because, the truth is, they are not interested in them in any way. When there is an alarm yowling on South Korean streets, because North Korea did something that disrupted the peace between both countries (i.e. nuclear test), no one cares about it. They do, however, believe in the unification of both parts of the country, but are not willing to do anything extra to make it come quicker. The high contrast present in the cinematography of Hitchhiker reflects those political, social, and cultural divisions.
Moreover, South Korea is a place of shelter for many North Korean refugees, some of which are considered potential North Korean spies. And that is understandable, because there were renowned cases of spies that exposed themselves and worked with South Korean government against the North Korean regime. Therefore, there is some suspiciousness of North Koreans that live in South Korea. They face an enormous spectrum of problems, ranging from use of advanced technologies or complicated transport system to reluctance and lack of acceptance from their hosts.
Though the problem of South Korean and North Korean relations is still relevant and crucial for the South Korean society, very few directors are brave enough to talk about it. But it seems that Jero Yun is one of them. His previous works (e.g. a documentary Looking for North Koreans from 2013) suggest his genuine interest in this area. And his approach makes Hitchhiker an exceptional film.
5 out of 6 stars.