Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for the Los Angeles Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit http://www.lafilmfest.com/ and follow the Los Angeles Film Festival Festival on Twitter at @LAFilmFest.
Jang Kun-jae’s films are characterised by conversations, chance, and encounter, delivered effortlessly by a minimal cast; and a preoccupation with the world that builds between two people, often between a man and a woman. A Midsummer’s Fantasia treads upon the above-mentioned issues in Jang’s subtle and quiet manner, but also surprises in the way he weaves them within an anthropological context of a small city community and the dual linguistic identity of a co-production.
Jang has an uncanny ability to depict how such a world comes into being, word by word, gesture by gesture.
Regardless of how briefly one meets another person, that meeting gives rise to a social world. That world can subsequently become small, fading into memory, or remain considerable and even become vaster over time, for one or both, depending on what transpires. Jang has an uncanny ability to depict how such a world comes into being, word by word, gesture by gesture. The world can be of a married couple, as in Jang’s previous film Sleepless Night, or of two strangers in A Midsummer’s Fantasia.
Hyejeong (Kim Sae-byuk), a Korean tourist, arrives in Gojo, Japan. She encounters Yusuke (Iwase Ryo), a young persimmon farmer, and they proceed to wander together through the city. In the course of several days, they continue their exploration and somewhat get to know each other. Unshackled by the (comical) angst that underlies the encounters/conversations in Hong Sang-soo’s films and by the pretentious existentialism in Linklater’s Before trilogy, Hyejeong and Yusuke present a leisurely visual and conversational stroll, contributing to films that have made of walking a mode of storytelling.
Crucial to this mode of storytelling is the long take. Jang forgoes flourishes of camera movement or explicit dramatic moments for the actors to capture the world developing between their characters. Instead, Jang’s long takes reveal his trust in not only his actors but also his characters and their stories. He matches and respects the characters’ walking pace, which at times betrays the development of their feelings more than the words they exchange: never rushed, but uncertain; at times emboldened, other times reluctant, maybe even doubtful; occasionally hopeful. Beyond their simple (and somewhat evasive) banter, Jang captures the intangible qualities of a social encounter between two people propelled by the simple act of walking: at once tentative in its unfolding and curious about where it is going, literally and figuratively.
Jang’s long takes reveal his trust in not only his actors but also his characters and their stories.
But the film is not just about an encounter between a man and a woman. The richness of emotional tones that arises between Hyejeong and Yusuke owes a great deal to what comes before it.
A Midsummer’s Fantasia consists of two segments. Hyejeong and Yusuke’s encounter is the second segment, titled ‘The Well of Sakura.’ The film flips around the tradition of marking the past via black-and-white and the present in colour. The first segment is in black-and-white, while Hyejeong and Yusuke’s segment is in colour and taken from a story shared in the first segment that took place several years before. Ultimately, the connection between the two segments makes the film not about romance per se but the romance of memory, the past, and storytelling. The first segment’s title expresses this theme explicitly: ‘First Love, Yoshiko.’
This thread of (first) love is woven into the journey of Korean filmmaker Kim Tae-hoon (Lim Hyung-kook) and his production assistant/Japanese-Korean translator Park Mi-jeong (also played by Kim Sae-byuk) visiting Gojo for a film project. They enlist the services of city official Takeda Yusuke (also played by Iwase Ryo) to explore the city’s locations. In the process, they interview some of the inhabitants and discover their community in decline due to the exodus of younger generations. This segment makes as much use of the long take as the second one, also in time with the trio’s walking pace. However, Jang adds the element of the interview, lending a documentary look to the segment. Through these interviews, a portrait of the city’s past and present emerges in a more immediate, affecting way. Not a portrait of statistics, but of memories that weave together the public and the personal, a place and a person, which then trigger altogether new stories and memories (after all, the purpose of the trip is for a film).
When Tae-hoon and Mi-jeong meet with Kenji, another local, he takes them to a closed school. In retrospect, it is one of the film’s most significant sequences. With the camera situated at one end of the hallway, providing a medium long shot of a row of windows on the right and sliding doors to classrooms on the left, we see the trio scan the space, what it is and had been. Tae-hoon and Mi-jeong are then taken by a photograph. While they inspect the photo as if it were a lost treasure map, Kenji casually points himself out in the photo. It is a kind of map, one that leads to Kenji’s childhood past. The world of the past that Tae-hoon and Mi-jeong have been learning about still grows as they try to reconstruct what the photo reveals regarding Kenji. Yet all this time the camera stubbornly maintains its medium long shot view of the scene, withholding the photo’s contents. A later cut at last shows the photo itself, but it is in its delayed divulgence and the anecdote it contains that gives the overall sequence its pull.
In A Midsummer’s Fantasia lies the charm of local memories whose impact go beyond their boundaries. After their tour of the city ends, Tae-hoon and Mi-jeong converse about what they have gleaned from the day, particularly from Yusuke and what he shared with them. The conversation is at once unremarkable and insightful due to its casualness about finding pleasure in knowing another. The second segment, then, is a thematic expansion of the second, doubling the film’s charm.
The conversation is at once unremarkable and insightful due to its casualness about finding pleasure in knowing another. The second segment, then, is a thematic expansion of the second, doubling the film’s charm.