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Yoon Jin-Seo (left) and Uhm Tae-Woong (right) as the tortured siblings in Iri.


Year: 2008  

Zhang Lu


Kim Seong-Tae, Zhang Lu


Yoon Jin-Seo, Uhm Tae-Woong, Yoo Yeong-Gyoo, Mohammad Jano, Go Wol-Hwon, Choi Eun-Jeong, Kim Joon-Seong, Kim Dong-Ho, Jeong Ji-Yeong, Ke-Yu Guo

  The Skinny: Despite a strong lead performance and a few other admirable qualities, Chinese-Korean director Zhang Lu’s follow-up to the beautiful Desert Dream is a depressing and alienating arthouse film that lacks the visual appeal and a real story to deem it a pleasing cinematic experience.
Kevin Ma:

After the admirable and ponderous Desert Dream, Chinese-Korean director Zhang Lu is back with not one, but two films that cover his two heritages. In Chongqing, Zhang explores the life of a woman in the titular Chinese city, and in Iri, the auteur looks at a pair of siblings struggling to survive in the infamous small town. Iri is perhaps best known for an accidental explosion at its train station 30 years ago that killed dozens of people, and has since been renamed Iksan to get rid of the bad memories. Even though the actual explosion has little relevance to most of the characters in Iri, Zhang fills his film with imagery and events that try to create associations to the event.

Instead of a story about the true effect of the accident on the townspeople, Iri is a slow, gloomy portrait of the small town now that offers even less hope and less plot than Zhang’s previous film. Zhang’s script offers no real beginning and no real progression, dropping the audience into his characters’ states of being and staying there for a majority of the film. The central focus is taxi driver Tae-Woong (Uhm Tae-Woong) and his mentally handicapped younger sister Jin-Seo (Yoon Jin-Seo) who live together in the same building as an old folks’ home. Around them are people who represent various sectors of society, such as Chinese language teachers, an illegal migrant worker, a coffee delivery girl, Vietnam War veterans and, of course, the old folks.

Desert Dream had a distinct visual language involving camera panning, but Iri is a step backwards from that style. Zhang chooses to present most scenes in the typical arthouse style, setting a static camera at a distance and simply letting the events unfold. While the pan technique is still used, it is only sporadically and often with a lesser effect. This takes away a significant cinematic quality that sets Zhang apart from his peers. Then again, one can argue that the distant and unmoving frame in the film is used to directly clash with the narrative’s traumatic happenings. By having the camera remain in one place as a spectator, the gloomy world of Iri remains grounded in reality. Zhang instead gives most of his attention to meticulous framing of the shots themselves, creating symmetries onscreen that will surely come in handy for a film class. However, audiences likely won’t notice the effort, hoping to see something more concrete than squares in a frame.

And one of the frustrations of watching Iri is simply waiting for that something to happen. As mentioned before, Zhang doesn’t really introduce the characters, as there’s no real narrative unfolding. As a result, a bulk of the film’s running time is spent filling in the blanks about basic character backgrounds and motivations. Some of the answers are shocking enough to qualify them as twists worth waiting for. However, even by the film’s end, you will still not be quite sure who some of these characters are. Instead of earning the audiences’ sympathy using characterization and established character backgrounds, Zhang simply uses shocking and depressing events to hook the audience into caring.

Zhang won’t be the first or the last director to disguise shock as art. The audience should be thankful that there are some redeeming features about Iri despite the sometimes abhorrent things that happen to its characters. As the so-called “town wacko”, Yoon Jin-Seo is a good sport for taking on everything her character goes through, and gives quite a powerful performance – a very large positive since literally half the movie features her wandering the streets of Iksan. On the other hand, while Uhm Tae-Woong tries his best as the helpless older brother, his character ultimately doesn’t make much of an impression even during the powerful ending. To be fair, this is due more to his character’s lack of an apparent personality and Zhang’s refusal to provide close-ups than Uhm’s actual acting skills.

Like most arthouse films of this nature, Iri may play well to an appreciative crowd who can care for the characters, empathize with everything they go through, and even appreciate Zhang’s stylistic choices. Meanwhile, the generally depressing nature of the film’s world is enough to send those looking to be entertained back to their nearest multiplexes. And then there are those in the middle, who will connect to the events more than the “story” itself, and will also be frustrated by Zhang’s alienating and often depressing choices. Having yet to see Zhang’s companion film Chongqing, perhaps it’s perfectly fine to not be so sure of what the aspiring auteur is trying to say about the human condition or post-traumatic psychology with Iri. Then again, maybe he’s just trying to say that life can be brutal and not really worth living. I certainly hope that’s not the case, for it would be a shame if a filmmaker needs two movies to simply dismiss life in such a fashion. (Kevin Ma, 2009)


DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
Premier Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Original Korean Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English and Korean subtitles
Making-of, interviews

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image credit: Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen