Festival Film Review: Microhabitat

Esom (Lee So-young) as Miso in Microhabitat
Esom (Lee So-young) as Miso

Miso just about gets by, living in a cockroach-infested room, earning just enough to pay the rent by taking low-paid cleaning jobs. She has to budget carefully, and can just afford a couple of her little indulgences: smoking cigarettes (preferably foreign brands), and frequenting whisky bars for a drop of single malt on the way home after work.

Then the prices start going up, and her wages don’t.

First she has to trade down and smoke Korean cigarettes. Then the rent goes up. And while most people would probably give up the whisky at this point Miso makes a surprising decision: she decides to become homeless.

As director Jeon Go-woon explained in the Q&A following the screening, most people in Miso’s position would shrink who they are in order to be able to afford their apartment. Instead, Miso (played by Esom) shrinks her budget. Her choice is one that proclaims her identity as an individual, preserving the essence of who she is, at the expense of sacrificing what a more “normal” person would regard as the essentials of life.

As she cuts her budget to the bone (while still saving enough for the occasional whisky) she couch-surfs around Seoul, trying to call in favours from her former band-mates in a rock band. She finds each of them, in their own way, trapped by their lifestyle. One is too pressured at work to offer her the time of day, another is shackled by crippling interest payments on his mortgage; a third is a virtual prisoner in his parent’s house while a fourth is a slave to her affluent lifestyle. Through all her trials Miso retains a dignity and grace that belies her poverty, and even as she vanishes from her former friends’ lives and from society as a whole she is the only character in the movie who remains true to herself.

If it seems implausible that a homeless person can maintain herself as elegantly as Miso by washing her hair in public washrooms, that is the only slightly uneasy element in the film. As one critic was overhead saying after the screening, “you’d need to be a puppy-strangler not to love that movie”. It certainly set a high bar to kick off the 2018 London Korean Film Festival, and firmly established many of the themes of the festival: a focus on female characters, female directors and the everydayness in peoples’ lives. LKL’s film of the year.

Jeon Go-woon (전고운): Microhabitat (소공녀, 2017) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

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