This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 8 May 2011
An antidote to the recent flurry of films about locally-found love, Desert marks something of a return to the “cinema of unease” New Zealand produced so well twenty odd years ago.
Kiwi-Korean director Stephen Kang has brought a true-life story to the screen to highlight a wide-reaching but largely unacknowledged issue in our Korean community. When Jenny (a compellingly beautiful Jane Kim in her first screen role) is abandoned at the altar by her lacklustre Kiwi fiance, James (Marek Sumich), she faces an uncertain future, alone and rejected by her community. Involvement with a local wheeler-dealer (Andrew Han, naturalistic and thankfully amusing at times) seems at first to offer support, but Jenny’s isolation is palpable, and with it, our discomfort at her situation.
Extreme close-ups and long takes from a sole angle make for a claustrophobic watch, and the lighting and photography is often reminiscent of the best Asian and European art-house fare. The well-translated Korean dialogue is no barrier for an English-speaking audience, and in fact the preponderance of silence as we watch Jenny’s daily life allows us to project our own feelings into her plight. Desert is well-made, subtle, not entirely enjoyable but arguably necessary.