A scene from ``Bandhobi,'' directed by Shin Dong-il
By Lee Hyo-won
In ``Bandhobi,'' director Shin Dong-il translates to screen ``uncomfortable'' issues of illegal immigration, racism and social toadyism through the universal languages of ticklish humor, teenage angst and priceless friendship.
It's a story about growing pains and the meeting point of different cultures _ the title ``Bandohbi'' roughly means ``female friend'' in Bengali. It's an indie flick that, while comfortably feigning mainstream superficiality, is inlaid with some gem-like scenes that show why Shim was dubbed ``the Korean Woody Allen'' (Berlin International Film Festival, ``Host & Guest,'' 2005).
Teenage actress Bae Jin-hui portrays the cheeky 17-year-old Min-seo with sure-fire articulation. One of the thousands of girls who took part in political candlelit vigils, Min-seo relentlessly speaks her mind at home _ ``you're just my mom's sex partner,'' she shouts at her single mother's incompetent boyfriend (Here, the film could have made the man despicable and turned it into something more noir, but he truly wants to get a job and become part of the family).
But she isn't entirely the hardball rebel she pretends be. Not wanting to be a burden, she even takes up an illicit part-time job to raise money for English lessons.
One day, she decides to treat herself to the spoils of a misplaced wallet, but is caught by the owner, a migrant worker from Bangladesh. Mahbub Alam, a migrant worker-turned-documentary filmmaker who played a minor part in Shin's ``My Friend & His Wife,'' shows off his fluent Korean to play the 29-year-old intellectual struggling to support his family back home.
Min-seo tries to dissuade Karim from reporting her to the police by offering to grant him a favor, and reluctantly agrees to help track down his former boss that owes one year's pay. As the unlikely pair pose as loan sharks, they find themselves transforming each other's worlds in unexpected ways but Karim's visa will not last forever.
The sometimes-shaky handheld camera keeps a rather ironic distance from the characters; for Min-seo, the world is a piece of cake while for Karim it is a cruel battlefield. They slowly form a mutual understanding, with the girl asking indiscreet questions and the gentleman preaching about problems in Korean society. Yet the most affecting scenes do not involve words, but rather the simple act of crying, listening and eating.
The blatant mockery of traditionally right-wing institutions including the President Lee Myung-bak administration and the daily Chosun Ilbo are actually funny, but at times are not limited to character portrayal as they ought to, and are rather vulgarly laid into the mise en scene. Another questionable aspect of the film, which aims to highlight the foreign community in Korea, is that the American teacher was not convincing as the occasional rotten apple he was supposed to represent, let alone his ``atypical'' American English accent.
The crude political satire will throw some into fits of laughter while offending others, and contrived narrative elements are bound to irritate picky viewers. But just as the film's hero Karim says, ``open your mind,'' and discover the film's redeeming _ and inspiring _ qualities.
It is unfortunate that the film, which could nevertheless reach out to teenagers, was rated 19 and over for some candid depictions of a girl's sexual awakening. In theaters June 25. Distributed by Indiestory.
Moviegoers can also look forward to the Migrant Worker Film Festival, of which Allum is festival director. It will be held in July in Seoul and through September in other parts of the country. Visit www.mwff.or.kr.