- Directed by Jungjae Hur -
Soo-a, a bright young talent, is an assistant painter at master Wonsuk’s studio. She is devoted, works hard, aims to impress and dreams to eventually be allowed to have her own paintings displayed at an art expo. Wonsuk, on the other hand, regards her as too valuable of an asset to let her slip through his fingers, and denies her this chance. Out of revenge against her secret lover, she stages an affair with a fellow painter, only for Wonsuk himself to hit back by teaching the young girl a lesson in respect and put her back into her place, which his traditionalist outlook demands.
It is important to view the action through a cultural lens: the nature of the relationship between the two main characters rests on acts indirect lessons undertaken in an effort to minimize the loss of face, a pillar of Korean culture in particular, and Asian cultures more generally. Thus, Soo-a exhibits her freedom and individuality by neglecting her job and going out with a man instead of working. Wonsuk silently and painfully accepts this, only to hit back later by ordering her around, and showing her who is in charge in an attempt to hurt her inflated ego.
Similarly, the exchanges between the two do happen mainly by means of dialogue, but the true meanings behind these lines are given by the high-context style of communication: they often say one thing, but their posture, eye contact and intonation of voice tell about completely different matters. This is a real success, as it gradually builds and develops these complex and nuanced characters, who, by means of both inner and outward conflict, reveal their many facets. The reasons behind their mutual suppressing of the true feelings for each other, for Wonsuk’s domineering, borderline violent behaviour, and Soo-a’s submissiveness are not as clear as they might initially appear to be, and it is this that gives substance to the film’s otherwise simple story. Some very good acting from the two main actors helps convey these characteristics in a truly believable manner.
‘Assistant’ gets most things right and offers a very enjoyable set of characters, who indirectly punish each other over the duration of the film, in the name of love. Jungjae Hur’s offering is meticulously woven and, while not a masterpiece in its own right, the film is certainly an enjoyable one, and very much worth seeing.