A Quiet Dream is apparently unusual even by Korean movie standards; a plotless, character-based shaggy dog story about Ye-ri (Han Ye-ri), a Korean-Chinese woman who runs a low-rent bar and is stuck with caring for her near-catatonic, wheelchair-bound father. Her frustration at her dead-end life is more than hinted at with her reading poetry and fondness for watching arthouse movies at the Korean Film Archive. The only constant in her life is an inseparable trio of friends: an aging small-time gangster, a sad defector from North Korea, and a goofball suffering from epilepsy who’s also her landlord.
The reason these three guys hang out with Ye-ri is simple: she’s their muse. They’re all quietly, and sometimes not-so-quietly, in love with her. And she enjoys hanging out with them as well, drinking, joking, quoting poetry. None of them are aggressive or force themselves on her. A local teenage lesbian is also in love with her, writing poems for Ye-ri when she’s not playing football or riding her bike. These characters are all society’s outsiders, often ignored, sometimes exploited, living a marginalized existence and, in a few cases, struggling with the emotional and existential parts of life in exile.
But this is not a heavy movie. It’s light as a feather, elusive like a dream. The situations the heroes get into are often quietly funny. It’s about just hanging out and observing them as they go about their lives the best way they know how.
Some viewers might find the plotless, low-key tone off-putting, but if you’re in the right mood, you’ll find yourself falling into the rhythm of the movie the same way you fall into a dream, with Ye-ri at its centre, leading you along from one moment to another. There might be a Jim Jarmusch influence here, but what I’m actually reminded of is Eddie Campbell’s Alec graphic novels. It’s every bit as eccentric and surreal as anything by Jarmusch and Campbell.
There’s a subtle theme of dreams versus reality that runs through the movie. The black-and-white cinematography makes everything feel like we’re watching a vaguely remembered dream, dipping in and out of moments of these characters lives as they deal with their frustrations and quiet desperation by offering each other friendship, company, and odd jokes. They may tease each other, occasionally piss each other off, but they stick together and stick up for each other.
Korean-Chinese director Zheng Lu is a professor of Chinese poetry and sprinkles meta references to literature and poetry throughout the movie, and the three oddball friends are all played by filmmakers each re-enacting roles that recall characters from their own movies. But you don’t need to know about all that or Korean Cinema to go along with the spell of this movie; it should stand on its own, and it does.
But the thing about dreams is that they end, and A Quiet Dream ends with the waking from that dream into a state of loss and melancholy. Everything had been leading up to this, and it leaves you wistful and glad you met these people.
A Quiet Dream is screening on July 12th.
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