Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 116 minutes
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What a find. The best of a decent, recent wave of South Korean films to hit these shores, Jae-eun Jeong’s “Take Care of My Cat” is the first Korean film directed by a woman in more than three years, and the level of maturity displayed by this 33-year-old first-time feature director is astonishing, considering her inexperience and her subject matter: how five young women in Incheon find their close-knit friendships unraveling as they drift apart in the years following high school graduation.
This highly accessible movie garnered praise at the 2002 Rotterdam (where it gained a special mention by the jury) and Berlin film festivals, and it debuted recently in Honolulu and Pittsburgh. It begins rolling into major markets on Dec. 6 when it opens in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif.
Imagine a Hollywood film about five post-teenage girls. It probably would be one of three things: a silly sex comedy designed to sell soundtracks and lure young boys and their dates, a slasher picture or Coyote Ugly. What it most likely wouldn’t be is an honest, insightful and highly entertaining look at the choices facing young women in the real world. “Take Care of My Cat” rings true – literally, it turns out. It may have set the unofficial record for most cell phone calls made and received in a motion picture, including a hilarious cell phone tag montage.
The ensemble film follows Hae-joo (Yo-won Lee), who works at an international brokerage firm in Seoul as the ultimate gopher — making coffee, faxing forms and running errands. She believes she’s really making headway in the world, and is always on the lookout for ways to remake herself — new clothes, laser eye surgery, new apartment. She begins to distance herself from Ji-young (Ji-young Ok), who is dirt poor. Ji-young, whose parents are deceased, lives with her frail grandparents in a slum and often borrows money from her friends. She finds a more sympathetic ear in Tae-hee (the excellent Doo-na Bae), a middle-class girl who is the odd duck in her family, and whose father makes her work for free in the family owned spa. Her only outlet is her volunteer work caring for a disabled poet.
Then there are the inseparable twins, Bi-ryu (Eun-shil Lee) and Ohn-jo (Eun-joo Lee), who scrape together a living as street vendors and are less involved in the drama, accepting all of their friends without judgment. There is indeed a cat — a cute one, of course — but thankfully, it functions as more of a metaphor than as a plot device.
“Take Care of My Cat” has glossy production values and vibrant cinematography (Young-hwan Choi), cool visual gimmicks (often, the text messages sent though their cell phones are superimposed onscreen in creative ways), with many laughs and much insight inherent in Jeong’s densely packed screenplay. The young cast is pitch-perfect, especially Bae, who is the glue of the group. Her reactions are priceless, especially during a rib-tickling scene when her father embarrasses her during a family jaunt to Tony Roma’s.
Though this is a dialogue-driven movie, Jeong directs “Take Care of My Cat” like it’s an action flick. The characters live in a fast-paced, chaotic, technologically inundated world. These women are constantly on the move — in buses, on the subway, at clubs, in restaurants.
Perhaps Jeong’s greatest achievement is that even though she doesn’t let her characters take the easy way out, it never dips into melodrama. I suspect that this is not a movie meant to gain sympathy for young women who have to experience hard choices, but rather a movie celebrating that these women even HAVE choices. South Korea is a traditionally male-dominated society — just now dealing with a diversified women’s movement, I am told – but there is remarkably little male screen-time, and almost no talk of men in this film.
That’s because these young women aren’t defined by men; they define themselves, and each other.
Posted on December 9, 2002 in Reviews by G. Allen Johnson
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