Country: South Korea
Language: Korean, some English
Director: Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환)
Screenplay: Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환)
Cinematography: Choi Jung Soon
Cast: Yoon Dong-Hwan, Choi Won-jung, Shin Ye-an, Nollaig Chandra Vedan Walsh, Cassandra Holmes
Runtime: 96 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Note: This film is rated R and contains graphic imagery.
In the post-screening Q&A the film’s director, Jeon Kyu-hwan, noted that what lies at the heart of Varanasi is a wish to expose hypocrisy, the hypocrisy in human behaviour that permeates our realities. Hypocrisy it is indeed when a married man that has been having an affair with one of his protégées at work for months reprimands his wife after she miscarries the child she was pregnant with in a terrorist attack committed by her own lover. Jeon Kyu-hwan shines a harsh light on individual people and society as a whole, a light that exposes inner uglinesses otherwise well hidden. That such frank, unapologetic and far-reaching criticism is not mainstream fare – even less so because Jeon has a preference for filming as naturally as possible (no special trickery, no hiding of anything happening in a scene, including the full-frontal nudity, male and female, in prominently recurring sexual encounters) – is unsurprising, his effort to expose therefore being both daring as well as laudable. There is, however, only one problem: while the story told and motivations behind the self-critical dissection of human society are all very well, it is difficult to care about this all.
There are four central characters in Varanasi – Young-wu (Yoon Dong-Hwan), a book publisher, Ji-young (Choi Won-jung), his wife, Su-yeon (Shin Ye-an), the writer-mistress, and Kerim (Nollaig Chandra Vedan Walsh), an illegal Lebanese-Canadian immigrant – but none is really deserving of our sympathy. Young-wu is clearly sketched as a soulless, despicable hypocrite, who only smokes, fucks (excuse my language), admires his own handsome self and occasionally goes home to be served a dinner cooked by his wife. His lover is hardly better. Middle-aged and unmarried, she exists on the periphery of Korean society with her norm-breaking, independent spirit. While this is not per se problematic, the complete lack of conscience for her part in the affair combined with a contradictory concern for the wife (she tells Young-wu to treat Ji-young well, selects his birthday present for her, etc.) reveals someone that is, in a sense, utterly devoid of emotions – not just guilt, but also jealousy or even real affection. Then there is Kerim, who is somewhat a mystery: he and his (non-biological) sister Sarima (Cassandra Holmes) each lost their families in an Israeli attack on Lebanon (presumably the 1982 siege of Beirut, although this is never specified) and were then adopted and raised by a Canadian couple, now deceased. For some reason, Kerim and Sarima have ended up in South Korea as illegal immigrants, the former slowly turning into a jihadi-Muslim in spite of the wish his adoptive parents made on their deathbed and intent on seeking revenge for the family he lost as a child. It’s a situation that is, frankly, overly complicated and feels far-fetched and reliant on stereotyping, regardless of the director’s declaration that he has nothing against Islam specifically, but that his criticism is aimed at the hypocrisy inherent in extreme interpretations of any religions. Last but not least, there is Ji-young, the wife, who quietly observes the world around her and becomes aware that her husband is being unfaithful. When Kerim – whom she knows through a previous encounter – has an accident, she helps him out, keen to respond to a moment of kindness he offered before. It’s perhaps possible to develop an inkling of sympathy for this long-suffering and lonely Ji-young, but like the other characters she mostly feels indistinct and flat in a story that may work in parts but does not quite add up.
The biggest issue is that the scenario presented is simply not very compelling. Kerim’s multiple country background seems fabricated and that he rather randomly lands in South Korea only to go off to India (why there?) to martyr himself is never explained in a satisfying manner – presumably, with the Jewish references, it is a hint at 13/7 bombings in Mumbai, but does not make much sense (why Varanasi?) and, to the direct victims of the 2008 attacks, could even feel offensive. While Ji-young, as the obedient wife, also does not seem the most likely candidate to engage in an affair, there may be some argument for her to begin a relationship on the side – she is merely looking for someone who treats her with a bit of consideration, and when Kerim does, she clings to him. In reverse, however, the situation is more questionable: Why would Kerim, supposedly a strictly observant Muslim, be interested in and let alone fall for an older as well as married woman? And in such a short stretch of time? We can come up with reasons of course (including that love – or perhaps lust? – works in mysterious ways), but the film itself makes no effort to provide them, leaving a plot line full of holes. Last but not least, there is the film’s ending, which is perhaps most contrived of all. <SPOILER ALERT> Instead of running off into hiding after the bombing he planned, Kerim’s jihadi Ali friend goes after Ji-young, finds her (somehow! in chaotic India!) in her hotel and is able to simply walk into her obviously unlocked room the single moment that her husband is taking a breather outside, then killing her for reasons unknown (probably to exact revenge on the unworthy infidel that seduced his God-fearing friend). In a story full of coincidences and complications, it’s simply one twist too many. <END SPOILER>
Varanasi is also weakened by some inaccuracies (the terms “step” and “adopted/adoptive” are used interchangeably) and although Jeon Kyu-hwan emphasised in the Q&A that he insists on natural acting – i.e. performances that do not feel like acting at all – unfortunately all the dialogue in English (between Kerim and Sarima) feels extremely scripted. It would be easy to only blame the actors at this point but with a constant emphasis on “step parents” that are – we are told multiple times – “dead” we witness conversations of stilted lines between siblings that talk like strangers, pointing to deficiencies in the writing more so than in the acting.
There is, in my mind, only one thing that works in Varanasi, though I doubt that many will appreciate it: the extremely fragmented and non-linear story line that constantly – without warning, without explanation – jumps between past and present, between Seoul and Varanasi, leaving viewers displaced in time and space throughout. Though the general story (certainly if one is familiar with the film’s synopsis) can be pieced together after a while, it is not possible to mentally align all fragments in a clear and complete order. Sometimes only seconds or half a minute long, there are simply too many pieces in too much of a disarray. It is an effect that will likely cause frustration in viewers, but that mirrors the reality the characters of the story are faced with: they are all so estranged from one another (themselves perhaps included) that they do not and cannot truly know even the person they have been living with for years (Young-wu comes to this realisation when he hires an investigator to uncover the whereabouts of the wife that has gone missing). As the film concludes, these people remain unknowable. There are questions that cannot be answered, narrative fragments that cannot be aligned to give a complete picture and, with the death of some, are shattered beyond hope, the director leaving us with a rather bleak perspective on the state of society.
Overall Verdict: While I appreciate that Jeon Kyu-hwan tackles difficult – controversial – topics, whether in this or his other works, it is the execution of his films that doesn’t quite work for me: Varanasi’s plot is too contrived to be compelling, the characters are too flat and indistinct to care about, leaving a story that ultimately does not move in any way.
Rating: 6/10 – I would even go a bit lower, but I do want to recognise the effect of the extremely fragmented storyline.
- Jeon’s fifth film, 무게 (Muge/The Weight, South Korea, 2012), premiered at the 69th Venice Film Festival, winning the Queer Lion Award.