Zhang Lu's Busan festival opener features three of South Korea's top actor-directors playing suitors of a Chinese-Korean bar owner.
The Korean Film Archives are present in A Quiet Dream in more ways than one, as characters go there to watch old movies, comment on its ambience and clientele, and talk about the social history of the multi-media hub it is located in. It's an appropriate backdrop, given how Chinese-Korean cineaste Zhang Lu's latest film makes multiple references to seminal moments in contemporary Korean indie cinema, the most notable of which being the top-billed appearance of three well-known filmmakers playing versions of characters in their own work.
But this is more than merely a homage to other people's past, great moments; A Quiet Dream also expands on Zhang's long-running interest about how people react to the traumas of geographical and social displacement.
While boasting a seemingly simple rom-com narrative of a beautiful young woman's relationship with her fumbling suitors, A Quiet Dream offers both surreal vignettes and also very real moments of social drama highlighting the quotidian lives of members of Seoul's invisible underclass. While a subtle, enigmatic and captivating film, Zhang's feature – which mostly unfolds in black-and-white – is also a daunting mix for audiences and distributors, and its berth as the opener of the Busan International Film Festival is crucial for its future festival run.
At the center of A Quiet Dream is Ye-ri (Han Ye-ri). Born in China, she joined her Korean father in Seoul in her teens after her mother died of cancer; the old man soon fell ill and became paralyzed, a condition that leaves Ye-ri - who reads classical Korean literature, recites Chinese poetry and watches arthouse cinema – with no choice but to stay at a dreary, dead-end job running the bar she owns in a run-down neighborhood in the South Korean capital.
Ye-ri's mundane existence is punctuated by the presence of a trio of feeble admirers. Jeong-beom (Park Jung-bum) is an earnest North Korean defector who – like the protagonists of Park's own directorial efforts The Journal of Musan and Alive – submits silently to the exploitation he encounters in his new life in the South, the latest indignity being his employer sacking him for "having sad eyes". Ik-june, played by Yang Ik-june, is a bragging middle-aged hoodlum cut off by his gang for laughing during an elder's funeral. And finally there's Jong-bin (Yoon Jong-bin, The Unforgiven), with his infantile advances toward Ye-ri.
This strange trio's interactions with Ye-ri offer funny moments and barbed quips galore, as the men compete feebly for the woman's attention. There's also a fourth suitor in the shape of a nameless football-playing tomboy (Lee Joo-yeong), who, beneath her confrontational posture toward the men, is actually a poetry-writing sentimentalist at heart. The film's most sensual scene is hers, as she embraces Ye-ri from behind – a lovelorn gesture Ye-ri softly and subtly rebuffs, to the other woman's dismay.
Bolstered by a string of cameos – including Zhang's Gyeongju star Sin Min-ah as Jeong-beom's girlfriend and Train to Busan villain Kim Ee-seong as the man's crooked boss – the main cast delivers with thoroughly effective turns, bringing Zhang's screenplay and thoughtful mise-en-scene to life alongside Cho Young-jik's pristine camerawork and Lee Hak-min's crisp editing. The protagonist's dreams might be hushed, but their personalities and their anguish come through loud and clear.