Korean Movie Review #3: Paju (2009)

(Sources: left, right)

I’m not allowed to love this person?

Because you say I can’t, I want it all the more.

With posters like these, then you could be forgiven for thinking that Paju (파주) is about some forbidden, Lolita-like relationship between the 2 main characters. Indeed, add promotional photoshoots of Seo Woo (서우) and Lee Sun-gyun (이선균) necking, or Seo-woo perched expectantly on the side of a bed, then why wouldn’t anyone believe initial media reports that this is basically a tale of an “outrageous high-school student” who, with “a mix of innocent and provocative appeal”, falls in love with her older sister’s husband?

A deep and complex movie that actually features nothing of the sort, Paju (파주) is very much undermined by such prurient marketing, and leads the cynic in me to believe that was designed to counter its otherwise ponderous and depressing tone by titillating audiences. Add that Paju requires: numerous suspensions of disbelief; is often frustratingly vague; and ultimately doesn’t seem to go anywhere, then, despite its accolades, it’s not a movie I can easily recommend to anyone but the most dedicated Korean film buffs.

And yet despite myself, I still agree with reviewer Darcy Paquet that it is “without question, one of the best Korean films of 2009,″ for reasons I didn’t fully appreciate when I first saw it six months ago.

One of those reasons is that, with events unfolding in a sequence not unlike Pulp-Fiction (1994), Paju has a confusing patchwork of flashbacks and flash-forwards that defies recounting here. But while this was very frustrating at first however, the timeline of events does resolve itself in the end, and in the meantime it forces audiences to think for themselves for a change.

Also, although ostensibly about Joong-shik (Lee Sung-gyun), Paju is really about his relationships with three women: first, with Ja-young (played by Kim Bo-kyoung/김보경) eight years earlier, that ends with a harrowing incident involving her baby that sets the tone for the rest of the movie; next in his marriage to Eun-su (played by Shim Yi-young/심이영), whom we soon learn dies in a gas explosion in their shared home; and finally with his much younger sister-in-law Eun-mo (Seo-woo), the relationship which anchors the story. And in particular, these women’s roles (and the skill with which they are acted) are very much one of the strengths of the movie, and something that can be difficult to appreciate for those that aren’t very familiar with Korean cinema (like myself). For, as Elizabeth Kerr of The Hollywood Reporter explains, director Park Chan-ok (박찬옥):

…is able to do something many filmmakers can’t or won’t, and that’s draw a realistic picture of modern femininity that’s blessedly free of the stereotypes that make up movie women. There’s no shrieking or weeping from Eun-mo when she recalls the events that lead to her sister’s death; Eun-su’s reactions within her fragile marriage are empathetic; and Joong-shik’s first live-in lover Ja-young, doesn’t have any ulterior motives when she re-enters his life.


Nevertheless, it is also these relationships – or, rather, Joong-shik’s role in them – that are ultimately the movie’s undoing too. Because, constantly running away from her problems aside, if Eun-mo did indeed both have the hidden strengths and be as mature beyond her years as the movie suggests, then, despite Joong-shik’s fears, (spoilers begin) she would likely have been able to recover from learning that she accidentally caused her sister’s death. But this is moot: in one of Paju’s biggest plot holes, Eun-mo wouldn’t have needed to be told any details beyond the fact that Eun-su died in a gas explosion in their home (only Joong-shik knew how it was caused), and indeed she soon learns that through her own clandestine investigations anyway. Yet by telling her that Eun-su died in a hit-and-run instead, then, rather than protecting her, all it serves to do is lead her to believe that he’s hiding something.

When he professes towards the end that he’s loved her all along then, in fact only marrying Eun-su to be close to her, his apparent deception is the main reason she doesn’t reciprocate (the other, presumably, being how he used Eun-su). And the audience can hardly blame her: not only does his confession seem somewhat forced and awkward, he never expressing anything but platonic love for her previously, but it suddenly diminishes his character, rendering what at one point seemed to be a genuine closeness developing developing between him and Eun-mo into something much more calculated on his part.

But it does at least present us with an interesting enigma: why does he permanently sabotage any chances of them becoming lovers by refusing to tell the truth?


Granted, he doesn’t realize she already knows about the gas explosion. But still, he doesn’t actually ask why she rejects him, which is inexplicable considering how he feels about her. Why not?

One solution, I think, I discovered indirectly, by realizing what so bugged me about an unrelated observation by Darcy Paquet:

In part, it is the film’s willful obscurity that gives it its strength….Personally I liked that the story’s misunderstandings persist through to the end: this is not a film where all characters come around to accept the same interpretation of the events we have witnessed. Because each character carries a different understanding – and no character possesses complete knowledge of what happened – there is a layered complexity to the film’s emotions.

In short, I think this is a fundamental misreading of the obscurity’s purpose. Rather, it’s only really two characters that have different understandings of events, and, like I said, Joong-shik very much possesses enough knowledge to change Eun-mo’s. But he doesn’t because, soon in a jail cell falsely accused of Eun-su’s murder and/or insurance fraud, he readily acquiesces in his incarceration, seeing it as a sort of penance for either the accident with Ja-young’s baby and/or his (oft-stated) insincere social activism. And, in hindsight, this is something he’s been seeking ever since he arrived in the city of Paju, and this gives us a fresh perspective on other alternative motivations for his entering into a loveless marriage with Eun-su too.

Not only is he buoyed by the knowledge that he is protecting Eun-mo from anguish then (a noble sacrifice that reminded me of the ending to The Crying Game {1992}) (spoliers end), but, if you watch the following beautiful scene from Strange Days (1995), which I was very surprised and lucky to find on YouTube, then suddenly what he’s doing really does begin to make sense. Please indulge me for 96 seconds, taking special note of  what Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) says at 1:24:

Unlike Strange Days however, which showed Lenny Nero the ultimate futility of atonement, Paju suggests that therein lies Joong-shik’s salvation. And in that sense, Paju is so much closer to Crime and Punishment (1866) than it is Lolita (1955), and cinema goers in 2009 would have appreciated the movie all the more if its marketing had reflected that.

(For more Korean Movie Reviews, see here)


14 thoughts on “Korean Movie Review #3: Paju (2009)

  1. Really loved this movie – felt that the tangled structure, which could’ve made it unwatchable, was solved impressively — it’s just really good storytelling, and the way it exists somewhere between bleak drama and suspense worked for me. I got more and more drawn into it and ended up at the edge of my seat. Much prefer it to her first film.


    1. Ahem…actually, I hated it both times I saw it(!), and started writing this post fully intending to say so, but reading other reviews helped me realize some of its better points.

      Normally I wouldn’t have been quite so receptive, but then I’ve been intensively analyzing 75+ over seventy-five Korean girl groups’ music videos for the last month or so, so I like to think that maybe I’m finally learning to appreciate things that aren’t obvious at first glance (even if they do have to be pointed out to me!).


  2. Have you ever come across any stats about women working in film and tv in Korea? There seems to be a fairly decent amount of female directors making films — relatively speaking — it’s a clear minority, of course, but the gap actually seems bigger in Hollywood or Europe.

    With Korean drama series, there’s a very peculiar norm, where the director seems to be male 90% of the time and the scriptwriter(s) female 90% of the time.


    1. Thanks very much, and indeed their new album jacket already takes pride of place in the draft I have of the next one (hopefully up tonight, but if not then definitely tomorrow morning).

      Alas, can’t think of too much to write about it though…nor about the big tampon they were holding in the photos for Supa Supa Diva.


  3. Oh, lordy. Well, James, still not too late for a revision….

    What it also puts me in mind of is France Gall and Les Sucettes. If you have never seen it……JYP ain’t got nothin’ Serge Gainesbourg. Remember, this is all happening in 1964:


  4. Dear “The Grand Narrative”,
    I just tonight watched PAJU to understand exactly who knew what in the movie, and to understand the true timeline. Who wrote the movie “Korean Movie Review #3: Paju (2009)”?

    Whoever you were, your review is brilliant! I’ll consult you whenever I watch a Korean movie that leaves me thinking that there must be a reason I feel I’m missing something.

    In fact, I was expecting something like this ambiguity (or rather, knowledge that there was a certain truth, but I just did not know it), when I watched “Rashomon”. PAJU delivered.

    Thank you – Frank


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