It’s been four decades since Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni sent Monica Vitti walking aimlessly, unhappily, through the icy environment which constitutes the modern city. In such Antonioni classics as L’Avventura (1960), L’Eclisse (1962), and Red Desert (1964), Viti showed how even upper-middle-class women could become paralyzed by empty relationships and, more subtly, by a sleek, alien architecture which offers no comfort for the weary-of-life. Hence, have things straightened out? Not in the arthouse film world. Though telling a familiarly grim cinema story, Gina Kim’s Invisible Light offers a particularily vivid dramatization of this affliction of ennui and estrangement which is said to poison today’s woman. In the case of this first feature, two women, each of whom suffers for half the 78-minute film before Kim’s obsessively probing, unflinching 35mm camera. Part 1, set mostly in a rental apartment in a motel-like building in California, sticks close to twenty-ish Goh-in (Yoon Sun Cho), as she nibbles on low-low-fat food, keeps checking her weight on a scale (shedding her running pants so she’ll register less), and avoids answering the telephone, which she’s unplugged. Though there’s almost no dialogue (except for a "Yes" and a "Thank you"), a telephone message is played by Goh-in, and it’s a disturbing one. A desperate woman pleads with her for dialogue, saying "I’ve known about you for a long time, but I don’t hate you personally. Please pick up the phone."
This is what we surmise: the woman on the phone is someone’s wife, and Goh-in is that woman’s husband’s mistress. I say "surmise," because Goh-in says nothing in reply to the call. Her frenetic actions say plenty: she keeps prowling her apartment munching on victuals. Gina Kim holds the camera for one excruciating long take in which Goh-in sits before an open refrigerator and gobbles random things from every shelf. Cut to Goh-in gagging and heaving over a toilet.
Goh-in’s apartment has the half-lived-in, impersonal look of something grabbed up as convenient to school by a well-healed foreign student in America. Is that Goh-in’s status? We know nothing except that she’s a Korean residing in California, and that she pines for the snows of her native country.
Cut to Part 2, and the "I’ve known about you for a long time" phone call is repeated from the other end. The wife, Do Hee (Sun Jin Lee), is calling California from Seoul, South Korea. Calling her husband’s mistress. More ennui, more unhappiness. Do Hee, we slowly find out, has flown from the USA back to Korea, skipping out on her husband. He’s unfaithful, she’s pregnant. Should she have the baby? Should she abort it? Sharing a man, she’s the mirror image of Goh-in, residing here in a loser motel, troubled by eating, vomiting in the street. And there’s an equivalent scene to Goh-in’s bulemic refrigerator eat-in: a long long take in which Do Hee masturbates in her bed and, after a dissatisfying orgasm, cries her eyes out.
Is there hope? At one point, Do Hee eats an apple with some relish and, in the last cryptic scene, she shines a flashlight at her pregnant belly and sings what might be a Korean lullaby. For the baby? Gina Kim, who is teaching this year at Harvard, will be at the Harvard Film Archive screening. Please ask her.