Movie Review: Our Body/아워 바디 (2019)

What’s it like to meet someone who embodies a purpose? How do you cope when that person moves on?

“The moment I wanted to stop, is the moment I started running.” Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Spoilers for first half of film. Source, all images: Naver Movies.

What main character Yun Ja-yeong (Choi Hee-seo) does stop at the beginning of this film is studying for years alone in her small, dingy apartment for the civil service examinations, the path to securing a rare stable job in Korea. Her goal was—is—depressingly normal, shared by as many as half a million young Koreans at a time.

What makes Ja-yeong different to them is that she’s done nothing else since graduating. That she chose this path despite having attended a prestigious university, which would have made her a shoo-in for most other jobs. But now she’s too old for those at 31, which also means she kept at her goal long after most would have wisely given up. Her inexplicable failure is further compounded by her briefly-seen boyfriend pointing out that she has no life or ambitions outside of studying and passing. (After some unenthusiastic sex, he leaves her for precisely this reason. She seems surprised—already we’re not.) Even her fateful decision not to take the latest round of exams is taken more out of apathy and resignation than resolve about what to do next.

But when the enormity of having wasted her entire adult life does hit her, it hits hard. She collapses in tears in a local park, the cheap convenience store food she lives off tumbling down the steps.

Then as if in a vision, the figure of jogger Gang Hyeon-ju (Ahn Ji-hye) suddenly materializes to hand her dropped items back to her, before vanishing out of her life again just as quickly. Looking poised, confident, athletic, and driven in her expensive athleisure wear, she is everything Ja-yeong is not.

Drawn like a moth to the flame, over the next few weeks Ja-yeong watches YouTube videos about jogging and struggles to put them into practice, shuffling and wheezing around a school track in old sneakers and clothes, all for the sake of a chance to meet Hyeon-ju again. She must also get a job—it’s implied that her mother (a much too young for the role Kim Jeong-yeong) has been paying all her rent and living expenses all this time, but, bitterly disappointed with Ja-yeong’s decision, may not do so indefinitely.

Finding the job search difficult because of Korea’s blatant ageism however, middle-school friend Min-ji (Noh Susanna) takes pity on Ja-yeong and manages to get her a basic, entry-level admin job in the company she works at. Yet she’s awkward there, unable to relate to her much younger coworkers, nor sharing their ambition. You sense that her time there will be short.

Then she does find Hyeon-ju. Soon, Hyeon-ju’s brought her into her large jogging club, then later lets her go on group runs with her and two other male members once she’s improved. Yet for all the viewer’s anticipation of their meeting again, the development of their relationship is glossed over, the focus going on Ja-yeong’s ensuing physical and mental transformation instead. Suffice to say, she becomes every bit as confident of herself and proud of her body as Hyeon-ju. This reflects in her job too, where she realizes the opportunities that are open to her, and even plans on a career.

Yet still her mentor remains frustratingly private. Only after running together for months does Ja-yeong even learn that she works in the publishing industry, and is a fledgling author.

That admission does presage a greater level of intimacy to follow, with more sudden phone calls from Hyeon-ju for personal midnight and sunrise runs together, and invites to drink at her place. In the first, after pointedly asking Ja-yeong what her sexual fantasies are, a very drunk Hyeon-ju strips to her underwear due to the heat. It sounds cliched, and is, but despite yourself you also yearn for them to begin a sexual relationship then—not only because of the camera’s focus on their bodies throughout this deeply sensual film, which makes it feel somewhat inevitable, but also simply for the opportunity to learn anything about Hyeon-ju at all. What makes her tick? What is she getting out of their relationship? What made her take Ja-yeong under her wing, a seeming basket-case who chased after her literally bawling her eyes out the second time she saw her, a complete stranger?

It doesn’t happen. Nor in the next visit, when Ja-young, concerned she’s missing their group runs and not answering her phone, waits outside her door until Hyeon-ju stumbles home drunk. Ja-young knows the reason is because her novel was rejected by a publisher, but doesn’t reveal this. Then after more drinks together inside, Hyeon-ju, in a rare moment of vulnerability, asks if she wants to read it—but Ja-yeong has already passed out.

Two minutes later of screentime later, Hyeon-ju’s dead, hit offscreen by a car during their next run together. It’s strongly implied she stepped in front of it deliberately.

Believe me, I debated over whether to reveal that spoiler.

I plead that after her death, exactly halfway in, Our Body feels like a different film entirely, impossible to discuss further without mentioning the circumstances that precipitated the change. For in that second half, the focus moves to her job, where Ja-young must deal with the conflicting demands of her grief, office politics, and her mother’s and friend’s expectations. Suddenly, she is every young Korean woman, chafing at her assigned place in a deeply hierarchical, status-obsessed, and sexist society.

Watch the film primarily for that last element, and you’ll be rewarded; I’ll wrap up my brief review here for so as not to spoil it.

But do not necessarily expect to be able to answer the question many other reviewers raise, of if Ja-young wants to be Hyeon-ju, be with Hyeon-ju, or both.

If forced, I’d argue the former. Primarily, because despite her growing confidence, Ja-yeong never initiates contact beyond that desperate chase at the beginning. Indeed, perhaps because Hyeon-ju comes across as somewhat of a ghostlike figure throughout, aloof and distant to the end, never giving Ja-young much to grasp on to with which to develop any potential platonic or romantic desire. Yet being the intense focus of the main character for all that, for this reason the underdevelopment of Hyeon-ju’s own story is my main frustration with this otherwise softly subtle, thoughtful film. So too that of Ja-yeong’s middle-school sister Hwa-yeong (Lee Jae-in), whom you suspect by the film’s end is the only other character who has any real sense of how Ja-yeong has changed and what she’s going through—but those conversations Ja-yeong needs with her never happen.

There are many torrents available; alternatively, it can be watched online with subs at DramaCool. Please tell me your thoughts!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

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