I had trouble convincing myself to watch El Condor Pasa. I knew it was about the death of a young girl, and I’ve seen and written about too many films like that. It’s why this review is being posted after Sunday’s screening of the film at MoMA and not before. I had to psych myself up, get myself in the mood. I wanted to see it, but I didn’t really want to feel depressed.
But eventually I gave in and put it on, and now I regret not writing about it sooner. El Condor Pasa is easily one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and it’s a movie I will thinking about for a long, long time.
El Condor Pasa is not a mystery. When the big moment comes and young Yeon-Mi is murdered, it sets in motion not an intense and exciting police investigation but a spiral into despair for the two people closest to her: her big sister and the priest of her church. In fact, beyond initial questioning, the police play essentially no role in the film at all. It’s all about Soo-hyun and Father Park.
Before the murder, it seems like Park might be the one to worry about. He keeps Yeon-Mi in church late at night, makes her do more work than the rest, and comes off as uncomfortably affectionate, especially when compared to the others (he has to be forced into photos with a group, but happily puts Yeon-Mi on his leg if she’s involved). The fact that he’s a Catholic priest certainly didn’t help things. Fortunately, the concern was misplaced, because it turns out that Park is really taking the place of a father, because Yeon-Mi’s parents have passed and her sister is often away for work. Oftentimes, he’s all she has. Even if Park did have some sort of evil intentions, they don’t play into the events of the film. They may weigh on his mind, but they didn’t hurt Yeon-Mi… at least, not in a way he could have foreseen.
Soo-hyun doesn’t come into the picture until after Yeon-Mi’s death, but from there she takes on an incredible important. Both she and Park blame themselves for what happened, and that binds them together, for better or worse. While others go on laughing and enjoying life, they become increasingly insular, cutting themselves off from society. Only they can understand how they feel, so their actual feelings about each other are irrelevant; they need each other. And though Father Park is the film’s protagonist, Soo-Hyun is the film’s driving force. What she does and says pushes and pulls Park around, making him go to the ends of the earth to atone for what he has done.
Many of these interactions take place in complete silence, and I mean Kim Ki-Duk levels of silence. There are long stretches of the film where nobody says a thing, and the longest conversations are a couple of minutes at most. Instead, the bleak imagery and depressed performances are left to convey everything. Fortunately, Cho Jae-Hyun and Bae Jung-Hwa are more than up to the task. Both performances are brilliantly subtle, and despite all of the horror and emotions, there is not a single outburst in the entire film. The characters sit in silence as the world turns around them, and their faces and bodies say more than words ever could.
And the camera gives their performances plenty of time to breath. The camera doesn’t zoom or pan or even move, except in four very specific instances. For the rest of the film, it is content to just stay in place, although it bobs slightly throughout. Sometimes it’s almost imperceptible, other times it’s obvious, but it’s a much more effective visual representation of instability than, say, canted angles. These mostly-static shots can also be very long: A pivotal moment in the film is an uninterrupted 8 minute shot (I checked), and it features no dialogue. It’s as fascinating from a technical standpoint as it is vital to the narrative. It is, in a sense, a point of no return, for Park especially, and it plays out beautifully.
In the four times El Condor Pasa breaks from its relative static, the camera shifts to the perspective of one of the main characters. The first time it happens is for the kidnapping, and that one shot is the only one in the entire film that I took issue with. Yeon-Mi walks down a dark alleyway, humming “Silent Night” to herself, and then suddenly she is grabbed from behind. The problem is that in the moment when Yeon-Mi is attacked, the camera stops seeing what she sees, if it ever did. The camera stops moving and despite the sounds of Yeon-Mi’s struggle, just points straight ahead. Jerking it around to replicate Yeon-Mi’s fighting would be disorienting and possibly cause its own problems, but it wouldn’t have the same unfortunate disconnect. On the fourth instance, the significance of this shift dares to be diminished, but its vibrant colors are in stark contrast to the muted tone of the film, so it’s mostly justified.
All of this comes together to create an emotionally taxing experience. In its slow silence, El Condor Pasa becomes gripping and intense. Seeing how two people who loved this little girl try to live in a world without her is ultimately more depressing that the death itself, and when the culprit is revealed, it was a shocking and horrific moment, but the performances stayed subtle despite the horror in the characters’ faces and voices. This made the scene even more difficult to watch, and the act’s justification was tragic in its logic and naïvety. Sadness gave way to outright depression.
When the credits rolled, I didn’t have much to say. I sat down at the computer and started to write. People were around me, laughing and playing videogames, but I didn’t feel like joining in. I didn’t want to talk, and when someone told me a joke, I couldn’t laugh. In some minor way, I understood Soo-hyun and Father Park as they tried to get away from the world that allowed Yeon-Mi to die.