Eyelids (눈꺼풀) made its international premiere at the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF) last week. The film, which the director made after the Sewol ferry tragedy, is an interesting arthouse film that will make you think. It’s not for everyone but if you don’t mind something different, Eyelids is beautifully shot and oddly surreal.
An old man lives a solitary life on an island and prepares ceremonial rice cakes for those that perish nearby at sea to help them transition from this world to the next. His life – and job – start to unravel after the Sewol tragedy.
It’s a beautifully shot but extremely odd film. Was it worth watching? Yes, but understand that the film isn’t going to appeal to everyone. There is very limited dialogue, it’s about a difficult subject matter – how to deal with a tragedy that involves the death of young people – and it’s very much an arthouse film. I don’t often feel out in left field with films. I watch a lot of them and usually grasp enough to understand them well as I couldn’t review them otherwise but this film left me lost a lot of the time and that intrigued me. Was he alive himself? It was all so dreamlike at times.
Okay, let’s talk about what happened. An old hermit lives by the sea and makes ceremonial rice cakes for those that die in the ocean to help them transition to the next stage of their journey. He does so for a fisherman that was out in a very small inflatable raft – and I was wondering why anyone would go out into the ocean in such a small and unreliable vessel but I’m getting off-topic. So far, other than the close ups of the bugs, it makes sense. Oh yeah, and the goat. What was up with the goat? Seriously, what was up with all the bugs and the snake? Was I missing the symbolism? Sorry, I’m getting sidetracked with some of the questions I had, back to the story.
A red suitcase appears and the film gets odder. The hermit hears reports of the Sewol sinking and a rat appears. The telephone rings even when off the hook. There are stone Buddha’s everywhere. Like I said, the film is intriguing. The rat and the hermit’s overblown reaction to the rat made me wonder.
Beyond the unusual storyline, the cinematography was beautiful, thought-provoking and odd. Actually, the entire film was all three. I was left with so many questions. Why was the red suitcase filled with water and nothing else? Why did it reappear and then appear again the ocean? What did the rat mean? Why couldn’t he make rice cakes for the Sewol victims? Was it because he was having problems processing the horror of the disaster? Why does the phone keep ringing? Is it for each person that died or each vessel that sinks? Why did he use the stone Buddha as a pestle? So many questions.
In addition to the cinematography, the director’s use of sound was impressive and it both set, and changed, the mood of the film.
However, the ending was creepy. How did the mortar being thrown into the well at the rat get turned into something, Buddha or the monk Bodhidarma perhaps, cradling the Sewol? And why, why did its eyes open?
Like I said, the film will make you think, wonder and try to puzzle out what happened. It’s both difficult to watch because it’s so deep and yet worthwhile for the same reason. But I was expecting it to be able to solicit more of an emotional response given the subject matter. For me at least, it was too existential to engage my emotions, and if you know me, my emotions are generally easily awoken. I think the best way to describe it is that it’s the director’s personal homage to the victims of the tragedy.
Eyelids was a very intriguing film that I still don’t completely understand. In fact, it would make a great subject for a film talk or class. In many ways, it’s like watching a 90 minute memorial for those involved in the Sewol tragedy but it was too existential, for me at least, to truly illicit emotion. Nonetheless, an interesting film but not one for the masses.
Disclosure: While not involved in any way in selection of films or programming, I am the chair of the board of directors for the Toronto Korean Film Festival. However, the opinions expressed are mine and not that of the festival.