Homebound – London Korean Film Festival 2019 – Film Review

Homebound, as its title suggests, explores that concept of being restricted at home with freedoms curtailed. Throughout the film’s length we are privy, however, to the frustrations and emotional turmoil that such restriction causes for its characters. The title could be referring to the war wounded housebound husband, Dong-u, who is confined to a wheelchair or it could be describing the claustrophobia encountered by his wife who faces a different conundrum and type of constraint as she feels duty bound to Dong-u after 14 years of marriage. Confusingly, this film’s title is also referenced as Coming Back in other sources which conjures up different connotations, who would be coming back and to whom?

Stylishly shot in black and white in 1967, Lee Man-Hee explores this claustrophobic concept in detail and urges the audience to be patient, similar to the wife, as Homebound is a slow burner. Featuring within the A Century Focus category of the London Korean Film Festival with a 4K restoration, this is classic Korean cinema and the director is no stranger to controversy as one of his earlier films was banned for several years due to its depiction of Korean society.

Here in Homebound those boundaries are transcended and pushed subtly. The role of women during such post-war period may have been very difficult and uncertain but the female character, Ji-yoen, is able to undertake work errands by delivering a manuscript for her husband, a journalist, and as such she regularly took a train from Incheon to Seoul to the newspaper’s offices.

There are several repetitive scenes observed of Ji-yoen being at the train station, walking along the same set of stairs, sometimes the camera fragments her body to focus on her feet, and admiring the vista from a balcony. These scenes serve as insights into the commuter route, the mundane elements of life and a sense of longing.

During such moments, the naturalistic sounds from the railways can be heard in their entirety. However, there are several dramatic piano scores used in scenes where the film lends itself to being melodramatic with over the top flourishes. The cinematography equally seems dramatic in parts with long, static shots; as a result, there is that sensation of being an equal participant in observing the panorama and the city’s horizon with that sense of future and liberty evoked by the fixed camera shots.

The stillness and silence of Ji-yoen’s current life, place further emphasis on that element of claustrophobia felt within the film, with several terse scenes, despite Ji-yoen’s ability to roam freely. Due to such silent scenes, the footsteps of many can be heard echoing vividly whilst walking on creaking stairs. Indeed, to empathise this aspect, Ji-yoen’s footsteps can also be heard whilst she walked up the stairs to catch a train.

The futility of the entire situation for Ji-yoen is captured fully by way of fleeting glances outside of a train window or sometimes furtive glances at others, including men, which is likely to have been forbidden behaviour during such a period. The sense of suppression is exposed further just by the very silent nature of the film. There are so many unspoken emotions on display and so you will find yourself sympathising with Ji-yoen’s plight! The camera lingers, poetically, on Ji-yoen’s face, elegantly played by Jeong-suk Moon, whilst leaning on a train window gazing wistfully at the scenery perhaps with a sense of hope for a solution to her dilemma.

Jeong-suk Moon as Ji-yoen in Homebound
Jeong-suk Moon as Ji-yoen in Homebound

The train station seems to represent a venue for an escape from reality … Here, Ji-yoen is often bumping into the younger colleague, Gang Uk, from her husband’s office. Is being seen with another man outside of the existing institutions also taboo during such period but could he represent a potential new, modern future for Ji-yoen?

Whilst there may be those temporary moments of freedom. Ji-yoen’s husband, himself, seems to be a victim of the past re-living moments of the war and its battles which result in him being disorientated and falling over. From his perspective, he does not consider himself capable of performing his husbandly duties and so poignantly urged his wife to leave him. Such sentiments are also echoed by his sister at a later stage after observing Ji-yoen’s impossible situation, but at such period would a divorced woman have been ostracised by society?

Unexpectedly, Homebound does start to become slightly meta when Dong-u’s novel is criticised by his editor for being too boring, the premise of such serialised novel is a parallel of his own life! The question posed concerned the reason why the wife featuring in such novel would be so patient and saintly, such character in the novel is, of course, mirrored on Ji-yoen. At such moment, life starts to imitate art slightly given that Dong-u is determined for there to be ‘exciting’ changes to the structure of his novel which in turn manifests itself in changes to his relationship with Ji-yoen.

Homebound is a stylish and well-edited film and its still motion shots, silhouettes and long angles were reminiscent of the techniques employed by French cineastes during the Nouvelle Vague period. But, its brooding tone, the pacing and that overarching concept of duty combined with its frustrations and Homebound’s overall style will not please everyone.

In fact, there were a few people that left early during the screening I attended for the London Korean Film Festival. However, I appreciated the film’s overall mood and its poetic cinematography. Homebound is rather effective in evoking that quiet sense of Ji-yoen’s repressed emotions particularly during the devastatingly poignant scenes where the notion of ‘divorce’ is advanced.

On the other hand, the film does pose that question of the transformation of love when the dynamics change from being a lover to a carer and it places an emphasis on querying the quality of life for all concerned thereafter.

Homebound is haunting, very frustrating, illustrative of an impossible situation and highlights the role of women and Korean society during such era.

Interestingly, the film is shot in black and white despite many of Lee Man-Hee’s contemporaries experimenting with filming in colour in the 1960s. This decision too seems reminiscent of the Nouvelle Vague films such as Jules et Jim and the European influence on the style of the film is evident.

Homebound is described as a melodrama which may be apt given its sweeping use of the camera and non-diegetic scores to illustrate moments of character reflection. Equally, there are examples of modern cinematic techniques employed illustrated by a time lapse sequence of people walking past a bridge.

Homebound may also be deemed a love letter to Seoul as the city is shot with such a romantic glow. It is indeed those scenes of poetic reflection that struck me whilst watching Homebound; it may not be an easy watch but it is a beautiful one. After watching Homebound, I was certainly left with the urge to visit Incheon and to take a train trip within Korea from Seoul station, which I shall now be doing soon after being so inspired!

As previously mentioned, Homebound is a slow burner but it is very effective in exploring introspection, life choices and the societal pressures placed on women against a political backdrop.

Lee Man-Hee refuses to compromise throughout Homebound by offering any solutions to the issues represented and the film’s denouement added an additional layer of ambiguity which certainly left me questioning its meaning. I was therefore pleased to be offered a glass of Soju as part of the festival after its screening of Homebound so that I could digest the film’s concepts fully!

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