With her debut film, Take Care of My Cat, writer/ director Jeong Jae-eung eschews simplistic sentimentality and confining causality as she fluidly unravels the thread connecting five female friends as they struggle against the riptide of young adulthood. Tae-hee, Hae-joo, twins Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo, and Ji-young, freshly graduated from high-school, all hail from the industrially booming port city of Inchon, pictured with vitality and texture by cinematographer Yeong-hwan Choi. Each of these young women finds themselves in a differing stratum of the attitudinal spectrum as they negotiate expectations, changing roles, and varying ambitions in the unstable medium of a developing South Korea. In fact, simply by following the scattering orbit of these young women, a dynamic socio-economic portrait is scrawled scene-to-scene. The girls act almost as status milemarkers, Hae-joo attaining the “top” and Ji-young holding the bottom, and the backgrounds; pedestrians, city streets, service workers, office workers, buildings, and shantytowns, fill the gradation into something rounded.
The foremost of Jeong’s concentration is character. Ji-young, somewhat sullen and reserved, has lost both her parents and lives in a collapsing ramshackle home with her ailing grandparents in the poorest section of town. Finding a job proves almost impossible. She keeps the depth and nature of this condition to herself, but it surfaces in tones of bitterness. Ji-young has two qualities to sustain her; creativity and patience, devising the most intricate textile patterns by hand, quietly hoping to study abroad and expand her abilities. She has partly the platform to bound out of the dismal pocket of existence into which she has been thrust, and around which so may others seem to build success.
Intrepid Hae-joo wills herself into a pitfall of narcissism and materialism after starting her ultimately low-level job at a big city brokerage house, made through connections by her affluent family. She moves into a clean but meager dorm-sized apartment in Seoul, dreaming of bigger and better things. Her action of removal provides the most blunted impact against the group’s waning solidarity. Her ambitions are common and vain which splinters the fracture further, especially between herself and Ji-young. This turn of character makes her seem unlikable and yet Jeong earns her a modicum of sympathy for the anonymity and under-appreciation that will be systemic in her corporate ladder climb.
Tae-hee floats in the middle of the spectrum and seems at first the most “free,” but is burdened by her split roles; working at her father’s tradition hot-rock healing spa for free, types for a young poet stricken with cerebral palsy, and tries to be the sustaining thread between her circle of friends. Tae-hee combines qualities of selflessness, self-destruction (smoking), naivety, maturity, modesty, and passion. A mix of so many opposites, she doesn't know what she wants out of life, but knows deep down that it resides somewhere other than Inchon and that it has none to do with material possession.
Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo are twins. Their spirits are high and playful. They have each other no matter what, and this is possibly why they seem so resigned to things, so at ease. They hawk jewelry on the streets and have an air of contentment about them. None of Hae-joo’s feverish ambition or Ji-young’s sunken woe rubs off on them. Nearly peripheral in presence, but wholly essential to the roundness of this film, they are simply “going with the flow.”
And between these five is passed around Tee Tee, Ji-young’s kitten. This helpless beacon of innocence passively represents a stage of their lives that has been lost.
The question might arise; why review a film with one decade under its belt? The reason, more than any excellence of craft, is its sustaining relevance. Take Care of My Cat is as indicative of its own time and place; 2001 Inchon, South Korea, as it is of ten years later, where all the same concerns of uncertainty, identity, economy, and connectivity (elegantly exemplified through the use of onscreen text-messaging, and constant use phones), seem like an unmodified transplantation, not only through time but through culture. These women wade through the same practical and existential mire of circumstance and choice that can be found this very day in America, or any developed/developing nation for that matter. Jeong culls something universally appreciable out of the specificity of her sororal cross-section. Choosing Inchon; a city growing incongruously in different directions, appearing to be in a constant and ambiguous fluctuation between construction and destruction, as the home of this narrative simply adds to the dramaturgy, wedded to the struggles of its protagonists.
The greatest competence of Take Care of My Cat, which is a pooling of so many wonderful talents and intuitions of modern/ independent filmmaking, rests in the telling. Jeong’s narrative, under the knife of editor Hyeun-mi Lee wanders but does not stray, floats yet does not drift. Her story is a construct of passing moments that ebb and flow rather than arc, yet the continuity never appears broken because Jeong has found a means to thread everything together tonally. Take Care of My Cat provides an accumulating person-centered narrative that meanders as a rule but never actually loses its focus on these five characters and their dispersal into the currents of life.
**Available on Kino International DVD**