China / South Korea –, 2005
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 07 September 2006
Source VHS screener
Features: The New York Korean Film Festival
The New York Korean Film Festival’s Closing Night entry is Zhang Lu’s Korean-Chinese film, Grain in Ear, a quiet, sensual, and beautifully spare portrait of the lot of ethnic Koreans living in China and the difficulties they face. In a small town in northeastern China, Cui Shun-ji and her son, Chang-ho, live in a small cement hut near the railroad, furnished with little more than a bed and a fan, chatting with the prostitutes who are their neighbors and fending off the occasional rat. With little work to be found, Shun-ji cycles around town, selling kimchi from her streetcart without a permit, and avoids contact with the native Chinese who seek typically to take advantage of her maligned status in modern China.
Such a description makes plain that the film is in no way a comedy, but even as Shun-ji’s life takes increasingly dire turns, Zhang’s style retains an airy lightness throughout. Against an often drab background of semi-urban sprawl, the film allows startling moments of aesthetic and folkloric beauty to break through: Shun-ji reads Chang-ho a bedtime story; a small parade of women dances along the street on an otherwise unremarkable day at the kimchi cart; the prostitutes sing a sentimental song as they walk the streets looking for customers; an old man reads a poem aloud as he browses at a bookstall, until the vendor tells him to buy something or move along. These fragments of unexpected beauty in an otherwise grim, brutal world extend a measure of hope into Shun-ji’s world as she endures the advances of a businessman, the harassment of the authorities, and a sexual relationship with a married Korean-Chinese man who visits her cart.
In its meditative combination of deadpan reality and moments of beauty, Zhang’s style shares a fascinating connection with the Chinese director Jia Zhangke, whose films (most recently The World) similarly elucidate a cold, hard reality with flashes of almost hallucinatory, sometimes even delusional fantasy. This style seems to come supported by a worldview that is humanistic and hopeful for renewal through the world’s persistent, if elusive beauty, and not resigned to fatalism. In its pace, it even shares more than a passing resemblance to the films of Jim Jarmusch, which typically follow a series of vignettes or situations, minimally composed and dominated by a wry, often uncanny, always uncertain tone.
Like Jarmusch and Jia, Zhang withholds from the audience a direct look at the ugliness of his film’s world and is therefore able to sustain this tone through the film’s most brutal events without veering too deeply into melancholy. The result is a minor miracle of a film, one that steadily builds hardships onto its protagonist with the most feather-light melodrama. From the vantage point of the audience, we are never as beaten-down by the grimness of the world as is Shun-ji, but instead get to participate in the small shards of beauty that Zhang mines for us. Only in the film’s final, ecstatic image, however unresolved it may be, is Shun-ji able to break out of the rigors of her context. Running beyond the gray railyards and into a lush, green field, Shun-ji achieves at least a small measure of escape, and her footsteps can still be heard on the soundtrack as the screen goes black and the credits roll.