[From September 20th to the 30th, the Korea Society in New York will be hosting a series of screenings called “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today” at the Museum of Modern Art. Over the week, we will be bringing you reviews of a select number of them. For more information, head here.]
Although I would hardly consider myself an expert on anything about Korean culture, I like to think that through all of the films I’ve watched and occasional supplemental reading I’ve done, I have a vague sense about how a lot of things work. Maybe that’s dumb of me to think, and I actually know less about South Korea now than I did five years ago. But if there’s one thing I have learned (and it’s something that I’ve had confirmed in interviews), it’s that Korean schools are terrible places. I am not referring to the education itself or the facilities necessarily. I am talking about the environment that comes with those things and the incredible violence that comes at students from all sides.
Maybe I’m just sheltered and missed the whole “getting thrown into a barrel and beaten up” part of my education, but I don’t think so. Mirage is yet another depiction of that violence, and it’s wrapped up in one of the weirdest films I’ve seen in quite some time.
Mirage (Milwoldo Ganeun Gil | 밀월도 가는 길)
Director: Yang Jung-Ho
Country: South Korea
Mirage is a film about a question, a really weird question: “Do you believe in wormholes?” Taken at face value, that question is interesting enough in and of itself. Wormholes as a concept bring up a lot of strange images and crazy mathematics. They’re weird holes in spacetime that fit neatly into the worlds of science fiction but seem less legitimate with regards to our own universe. Most of the characters in Mirage don’t believe in wormholes, in fact there is only one character who truly believes in them. His name is Ki-Jung (Shin Jae-Seung), and he is the focal point of the story.
He is not, however, the protagonist of Mirage. That role falls upon Dong-Jo (Moon Jung-Woong), who seems to have been Ki-Jung’s only boyhood friend. Dong-Jo is a writer, a writer who has based a now-award winning novel on a story belonging to Ki-Jung. It’s a story about the mysterious “Milwol Island.” I never figured out if Milwol Island actually ever existed, but it is clearly of importance to the people in the story, Ki-Jung most of all. Somewhere on Milwol Island, so the legend goes, is a wormhole. There’s no hint as to where the wormhole ends or anything other than the fact that it is there. Ki-Jung is obsessed with wormholes. He talks about them, shouts about them, and basically lives based on this notion of wormholes. Nobody else is convinced, but Dong-Jo at least allows for Ki-Jung’s outbursts. Most of the others dismiss him outright.
Much of Mirage seems to take place on Milwol Island, but I can’t be entirely sure given the nonlinear nature of the story. There are at least three separate timelines going on in the film. There’s the present, which is years after school has ended and Dong-Jo has won this award; the past, where most of the action takes place; and a fictional third timeline, which is a visual retelling of Dong-Jo’s next novel. It’s possible that there is a fourth, because there are a series of things that happen in what seems to be separate but could have fit somehow into either the past or fictional timelines. Given that at least one of the timelines is not real (and is based on aspects of another timeline), things get pretty confusing, and I often had trouble discerning reality from fiction. Given the alternate meaning of the overarching question, though, I imagine that was at least somewhat intentional.
“Do you believe in wormholes” also refers to faith and commitment to an idea. After presenting his award-winning novel based on Milwol Island, Dong-Jo is confronted by a man who asks him that question. After a stutter, the man explains that he can’t truly write about something he doesn’t believe in. He needs to just accept the things he’s writing about. A crazy person who truly believes the crazy things he’s writing about will have a more powerful final product than a sane person who tries to write about crazy things. Belief also plays a major part in Dong-Jo’s relationship with Ki-Jung. The question of “Do you believe?” comes up time and time again when they talk. Dong-Jo’s skepticism is a sticking point in their relationship, but at least he’s willing to give things a shot. He doesn’t necessarily believe, but he stands up for Dong-Jo and his “craziness.”
Other people aren’t so nice. In the introduction, I made it clear that there is some intense violence in Mirage, and there is. It all takes place in the past, when Dong-Jo and Ki-Jung were school-age. From the looks of them, I would guess middle school, but they could be young high schoolers as well. A particular gang of kids, led by a boy who is clearly a psychopath, becomes convinced that Ki-Jung is homosexual (something that is certainly implied, but never really clarified one way or another) on top of being insane. Said psychopath warns Dong-Jo to stay away, but he persists. It culminates in a truly unpleasant scene which involves a lot of physical and mental torture of Ki-Jung (and to a lesser extent Dong-Jo) by the psychopath and his lackies. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, per se, but it goes far beyond anything I could have imagined the film would do. There’s probably something in there about belief and blind acceptance of someone else’s word, but perhaps I’m overthinking it.
In general, though, there’s a creepy tone to everything. The entire idea of wormholes is kind of creepy in and of itself, and there are moments (especially on Milwol Island) that freaked me out a bit. Right off the bat, actually, it’s pretty clear that things are weird. In a nightmare sequence of shots that starts off the film, everything seems strange from the get-go. That serves as a good introduction into the film, since it only gets stranger as things go on. I think a lot of that goes back to the question of reality. What happens is weird enough, but it’s hard to see how everything fits into any kind of bigger picture. The timelines, distinct mostly due to their color schemes, add up to a story without an ending. Much of Mirage is confusing, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This may all sound very negative, but that’s a function of what the film contains. On the whole, I liked Mirage. So maybe I just watch the whole thing wrong. Maybe I should have just given up thinking so hard and let it wash over me.
Maybe I should have believed in wormholes.