Kim HaeSook is a fine actor. Her movie credits are impressive, having worked on some recent, notable Korean films like Assassination, The Throne and The Handmaiden. On TV, she often plays a quietly suffering mother whose life has been tormented by selfish children, an oblivious husband and squabbling in-laws. There is a handful of older female Korean actors whose on-screen presence, like Kim’s, is often the most stabilizing and interesting element in middling Korean TV fare. Having honed their craft, often over decades, actors like Yoon YuhJung, the late Kim YoungAe, Ko DuShim and Na MoonHee don’t just act, but they synthesize scripts and emotions to bridge the gap between the audience and the show.
While these actors find the occasional film work, most of them work more steadily on TV. The practical reason for this is demand. A lot of Korean TV programming features family based dramas that are often told from a female-centered perspective. As such, there is a small, rotating list of always dependable actors who fill in as the matriarch. Another reason is that there aren’t many roles for older female actors in film. Most Korean movies, not surprisingly, are specifically male driven from top-bottom. Korean movies about corruption, crime and vengeance have very little to no room for female roles of any age. And despite Kim HaeSook’s presence in New Trial (2017), a film by Kim TaeYoon, her role could have been played by a cardboard cutout. This is not to say that she doesn’t do anything. In fact, she does too much because there’s not much else to do.
In the film, Kim plays the mother of HyunWoo (Kang HaNeul) who is falsely accused, tried and convicted of a murder. After his release from prison, JoonYoung (Jung Woo), a sad-sack lawyer, decides to take on HyunWoo’s case in seeking a new trial to overturn the conviction. Though he’s working the case pro bono, he figures that the notoriety of the case will monetize his brand. Cynicism and making a buck go hand in hand. Despite the modesty of the film’s scope and production, New Trial is mostly well done. The rhythm of the movie is swifter than its two hour running time suggests and that’s the director’s biggest strength. There’s nothing visually striking but the pulse of the story and the performances by the two male leads keep the movie from feeling dry. If there’s one thing that got my attention, it was the incongruously over-the-top performance by Kim.
Generally measured, sometimes stoic, but almost always in control of her characters, Kim kicks those qualities to the side and goes all out in this movie and occasionally ruptures the careful timing of the script. She screams, yells, wails and on top of all that, her character goes blind. That’s a pretty cheap plot device designed to squeeze the viewer’s emotional pliability. And if she isn’t hurling herself into histrionics every time she’s on screen, perhaps that manipulation would have worked. But it turns a good actor bad.
The two male leads, Jung and Kang have a lot to work with. The script, also written by the director, is dense and there’s a lot of material for these two to flesh out. While I’m not familiar with Kang, I haven’t seen Jung do better. His character embarks on a transforming journey that’s convincing and thoughtful. Kang’s character is flatter but he’s good as Jung’s counterpoint. And so Kim has the role of the long-suffering mother whose blindness doesn’t stop her from digging for clams on muddy shores. She’s not the foil, not the raisonneur or hardly even a function at all. So instead, she overplays her hand when her character starts clapping or when confronting a civil servant or when she’s sitting in the courtroom or doing just about anything else.
In fairness to Kim, many Korean movies relegate female roles into characters that are utilitarian functions. When a movie needs to slow down or needs a victim to advance the action, a female character fills that role. Korean movies like A New World or The Age of Shadows are recent examples of high gloss, big budget movies that treat female characters as these types of contrivances. As a result, there’s no real care or craft behind female representation which leaves female actors with very little room for creativity. So, is it any wonder then that a typically reliable actor like Kim resorts to insufferable screechiness?
Over-produced, hyper masculine, numbingly violent Korean movies are still very popular in Korea. I’m not one to say that the industry should stop making them. Frankly, there are some really good films that come out of Korea. Part and parcel of that is the general marginalization of females in the bigger budget films and that’s just not likely to change. As a result, female actors are still trying to find a place in these types of films and they are still struggling to find a voice. The good thing is that they’re still visible and vibrant on TV. You just have to deal with the occasional missing vagina plotline.