Take Care of My Cat (2002)
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Films from South Korea have not exactly been scrambling for space inAmerican theaters as of late. Still, in the past two years, a widecross-section has turned up in just a few films -- the vulgar Lies,the mediocre action hit Shiri, the lively serial-killer flick Tell MeSomething and the exceptional, outstanding films Nowhere to Hide andChunhyang.
Now two Korean films open in Bay Area theaters this week. The first is the irritating The Way Home. Fortunately the second is a wonderful coming-of-age story called Take Care of My Cat.
The year 2002 has conjured up more coming-of-age stories than seem possible, but Take Care of My Cat emerges as the very best of them, managing a fresh take on an old theme and concentrating squarely on that mysterious force that causes young people to become friends -- then strangers.
Five twentysomething girls living in the low-rent seaport town Incheon find it difficult to get together as often as they did when they were in high school. The group's leader, the beautiful Hae-joo (Yo-won Lee), gets a job in a brokerage firm in Seoul. She soon finds out that it's going to take more than looks and charm to climb any higher.
Ji-young (Ji-young Ok) lives with her poor grandparents in a crumbling flat and dreams of being a textile designer, continually scribbling attractive patterns on whatever paper she can dig up.
Tae-hee (Doo-na Bae) works for free at her parents' bathhouse and takes dictation for a palsied poet. She also acts as the glue between the crumbling group members. She's always the one to call and organize get-togethers, and she's always the first to complain that she's always the one to call.
The last two friends are twins, Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo (Eun-shil Lee and Eun-joo Lee), and the film has them happily rolling with the punches, providing more comic relief than actual characters. Nevertheless, they remain essential to the group dynamic.
The film runs casually over the course of about a year and the change of seasons becomes a significant character. Warm spring weather allows for strolls outside, while frosty fall weather sends the group scrambling for cover.
The group first assembles onscreen for a birthday party during which a kitten is given as a present. The kitten gets passed back and forth between all the girls during the course of the movie, hence the title.
But the cat really takes a backseat to the wonderfully low-key way in which the movie captures this five-way friendship. One devastating moment has Ji-young and Tae-hee taking a long, ambling walk, talking about everything and nothing. Tae-hee receives a call on her cell phone and we overhear her explaining that she's hanging out with a friend that the caller doesn't know. A simple moment, but it reveals how devastatingly near the end these old-time friends really are.
At other times, the girls act as close as ever. During a party, they all go up to the roof to play a game using a mirror to capture the reflection of the moon. It's a freezing cold night and one of the girls has accidentally locked the door. The bond of friendship lasts during this trying time, and the girls even manage to giggle now and then, making light of their chilly predicament.
Writer/director Jae-eun Jeong makes her feature debut with Take Care of My Cat and, provided more of her films make it to these shores, she's a talent worth watching.
The film's beautiful sadness comes from the knowledge that even these happy gatherings are merely the death rattle of a once powerful bond. The only other film I can think of that captured this slow, subtle demise is Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, but even that great film rooted itself in a specifically designed, artificial world.
Take Care of My Cat faces this sadness with true bravery, but takes long enough to savor the sweetness of the time we have left.