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A Tough but Terrific Family Drama: Kim Se-in's The Apartment with Two Women

The South Korean film “The Apartment with Two Women” is sometimes quite difficult to watch because of the blistering emotional intensity from the utterly uncompromising portrayal of the two unlikable women at the story's center. Totally free and uninhibited by any convention associated with its main subject, the movie blazes along with its two pathetic but vividly portrayed main characters. Its long running time (140 minutes) will never feel that long to you as you often brace yourself for whatever may happen between them.  

In the beginning, we get to know how things are miserable for a young woman named I-jeong (Lym Ji-ho) as she lives with her mother Soo-kyeong (Yang Mal-bok), day by day in their cheap apartment. As a self-absorbed woman with an abrasive personality, Soo-kyeong does not care that much about her sullen daughter without showing any attention or affection, and the opening scene succinctly establishes their dysfunctional relationship. As I-jeong is busy washing several pieces of underwear shared by them in the bathroom of their apartment (the Korean title of the movie is “Two Women Wearing Same Underwear,” by the way), Soo-kyeong is mostly occupied with a phone conversation with her friend. She does not mind changing her panties right in front of her daughter.   

I-jeong has been accustomed to how insensitive and abusive her mother can be, but they cannot help but conflict over trivial matters. She asks her mother to buy a pack of Tylenol, but Soo-kyeong forgets that while having a pretty good time with her close friend outside, and she does not even apologize to her daughter later. The next day, Soo-kyeong and I-jeong clash with each other again while they are shopping, and then something unexpected occurs when Soo-kyeong starts to drive their car while I-jeong is right in front of it. 

After this serious incident, I-jeong finally decides that enough is enough. However, despite some defiance, she still finds herself stuck with her mother as before just because, well, she does not know how to live independently outside. She does have a job, but she has mostly depended on her mother in one way or another. Besides, her job is not that promising at all, and she is not even good at her job due to her apparent lack of social skills, though she manages to get a little better after receiving some advice from her boss.

The movie also highlights how Soo-kyeong reaches for a nice chance for a better life. There is some widower guy who may marry her someday, and it seems that all she will have to do is be nice to him and his adolescent daughter, though that turns out to be not so easy at all. At one point, Soo-kyeong attempts to ingratiate herself with them via her special cooking, but she only finds herself quite embarrassed in front of them, to our little amusement.

In the meantime, out of her longtime spite toward his mother, I-jeong comes to testify against her mother in a lawsuit involving that car accident, which surely angers Soo-kyeong, to say the least. This latest conflict between them eventually prompts I-jeong to leave their apartment. Not knowing what to do next, she depends on one of her co-workers, who generously lets I-jeong stay at her little residence for a while but quickly becomes wary of I-jeong for understandable reasons. Still being an emotionally stunted kid craving for any kind of care or consolation, I-jeong cannot help but lean and stick more and more to her co-worker as time goes by, and that is the last thing her co-worker wants.

The screenplay by director/writer Kim Se-in does not make any excuses and sharply examines its two main characters’ persistent human flaws. Yes, there eventually comes a point where Soo-kyeong and I-jong confront their complex emotional issues in private, but that does not lead to any kind of reconciliation or ventilation. As a stubborn woman who has been adamantly going her way for years, Soo-kyeong refuses to apologize for all those years of emotional and physical abuse inflicted on her daughter, which makes I-jeong all the more despaired and frustrated than before. She does know that she should get away from her terrible mother and her virulent influence as soon as possible, but their emotional bond still feels so strong to both of them that she may not be completely free from her mother for the rest of her life.

Under Kim’s unadorned but strong direction, her two lead actresses give two of the best South Korean movie performances I have ever seen during the last several years. Yang Mal-bok, whom you may recognize for her small supporting turn in the first season of the South Korean Netflix TV Series “Squid Game,” is simply astonishing in her boldly committed performance. Soo-kyeong is surely as mean and cruel as Mo’Nique in Lee Daniels’ “Precious” (2009). But she is at least honest about herself, and Yang brings a morbid integrity to her monstrous but undeniably fascinating character. 

On the opposite side, Lym Ji-ho is equally superlative in embodying the deep emotional scars of her character’s abused psyche, and it is constantly compelling to watch how she and Yang viciously pull and push each other throughout the film. Although the movie does not show much of the past between their characters except in one flashback scene, Yang and Lym ably let us sense a long history of anger and resentment between their characters. We come to understand them more, even while wincing a lot from a distance. 

Around Yang and Lym, Kim places a few main cast members who are also believable as real human characters at the fringe of the story. Kwon Jung-eun has a couple of good scenes as Soo-kyeong’s best friend, who has tolerated and accepted Soo-kyeong a lot because, well, she does not have to live with Soo-kyeong, unlike I-jeong. Yang Heung-joo brings some humor to the story as Soo-kyeong’s hapless potential suitor, and you will shake your head more as discerning how he does not understand what kind of a woman Soo-kyeong is. Jung Bo-ram is very effective as I-jeong’s co-worker, and the movie subtly suggests that her character may not be so different from I-jeong despite their considerable personality difference. 

"The Apartment with Two Women,” Kim’s first feature film, is a brutal but undeniably intense work relentlessly fueled by its two unforgettable main characters. It deserves to be compared with Yang Ik-Joon’s “Breathless” (2008), a small but very striking South Korean movie about a toxic father-and-son relationship. Sure, you will not like this mother and daughter at all, even at the end of the story, but you will never forget them after watching this tough but terrific family drama.

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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