A good story with an ugly protagonist and adorable spirits
[The ongoing Korean Movie Night series in New York City continues tomorrow night, February 12, with the film The House. The screening is free, first come-first More information can be found here.]
Imagine you're Donald Trump. You're looking to build more gaudy Trump tower apartment complexes, and you decide to put it on top of a small ghetto. You pay the residents some insignificant fee, and they give up their homes because they don't really have a choice. You go to supervise the destruction of the ramshackle huts, but on your way someone gives you a bracelet. This bracelet shows you that every one of the homes has a big, lovable guardian spirit attached to it. The big, gelatinous creatures watch in horror as they are murdered by the people contracted to do your work.
If you were Donald Trump, this slaughter likely wouldn't make the slightest difference to you. But let's say you are you now, in Donald Trump's position. Would you care? And if so, what would you do to save them?
The House (Jib | 집)
It's possible that my hypothetical made The House sound a bit more exciting than it actually is. The film follows Ga-young, a young woman with aspirations of grandeur. She wants to live in a beautiful building, because only money can buy her happiness. Unfortunately, her family has gone broke and she is forced to live in an ugly apartment with a friend who is far too kind, given how ungrateful Ga-young is. She decides to be a tutor, but she won't tutor kids in the poor neighborhood in which she has been forced to reside. One parent in the nice houses will pay 10 times what the poor parents will pay, and she doesn't want to be associated with common folk. It seems like a pretty typical setup for a film about a woman who comes to her senses and realizes that money isn't everything.
And yeah, that happens, but it doesn't happen the way you might expect. One day, a cat drops its collar, and it turns out that collar has some magical properties. Anyone touching it can see the guardian spirits that live in each house. These guardian spirits aren't actually capable of doing anything, but they're big and cute and nice. They care about their homes, even if they can't really do much to help. Basically they are there to eat rice cake offerings and pray to the God of Land. What can the God of Land do? Well, that's never made really clear. Either way, being able to contact these blobs of good is a catalyst for some serious change. I don't really know that I feel the change is justified in the narrative. Ga-young is not a sympathetic character, and her 180-degree flip feels somewhat contrived, like the plot device that it is rather than any legitimately earned character development.
The animation style of The House kind of defies description. It's not 2D animated, even though everything that moves or interacts is hand-drawn; it's certainly not 3D animated, because the 3D world in which it takes place is very much real; but it's not stop-motion either, even if that 3D world would not be out of place in a stop-motion film. You can see what I mean from the images, but it's even more bizarre in motion. Past experiences with Korean 3D animation is not up to American standards, which is hardly surprising given the more limited resources generally afforded to them, so it is nice to see something that tries to differentiate itself. But it's so different that it's distracting.
This is never more apparent than in the moments when what is supposed to be scenery is a part of the film. A row of modeled underwear is hanging from a modeled clothesline, but at the end of that line is a hand-drawn bra. That last one, unsurprisingly, is the one that a mischievous cat grabs and pulls down. In those moments, I really wondered what exactly the rationale behind the style was. Did they save time by building those models and taking photos for the action to take place on as opposed to drawing everything by hand? If so, why haven't other films attempted this kind of thing? Then again, maybe they have, and I'm just ignorant. Regardless, my point is that it's weird, and it doesn't always work as well as I imagine the filmmakers hoped it would.
Despite its issues and oddities, though, I liked The House. The story it attempts to tell a compelling one, even if Ga-young is not the best character to tell it through. There is a laundry list of things I wish it had (for example, a moral dilemma like the one I outlined in the introduction; no one with any kind of power ever sees the guardian spirits), but it's still a worthwhile film without them. Part of that comes from the 82 minute runtime, because I usually have a pretty hard time getting mad at films that clock in under 90 minutes (though there are, of course, exceptions). It feels a bit longer than it is, but it never really dwells on one thing for too long. If it did, I think the fact that it doesn't have so much would have been much worse. As it was, my biggest issues generally didn't occur to me until after the fact.
The idea of guardian spirits is a new one to me. I can't pretend to know much about Korean folklore (or any Asian folklore, for that matter), so I don't know if it has historical roots, but in my mind the concept is fresh and compelling. The "selfish woman becomes unselfish" premise is one that I have seen dozens of times, but never quite like this. For the animation style alone, The House is worth looking at, even if it doesn't work all the time. If you're looking for something atypical to watch, I don't think you'll be disappointed. If you're in the New York area and can make the Tribeca screening, I imagine that seeing it on a big screen would be pretty cool. If you're not, though, all hope is not lost: it's available on Netflix Instant.