O Kim Cho-hee’s Lucky Chan-sil, streaming on MUBI India, begins with sombre, doomsday music over text about how cinema is not about numbers. There is merry drinking of soju followed by death in the bar. The film though takes us to a different place—about a character’s life and career, a delicate balance and a chance for romanticism. It’s about Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum), a movie producer who has worked with the same arthouse director for much of her life. It’s that director who passes away suddenly at the beginning of the film, stalling the new film, a deathly ribbon on Chan-sil’s career. It leaves her in the lurch, the production company not only fires her but disrespects her work saying her job is dispensable and the films, after all, will have come out even without her. Entering her 40s, we have in our hands both an existential and romantic crisis.
The foreboding of horror in the opening music isn’t misplaced. In the beginning as Chan-sil moves into a humble home owned by an old and frail landlady (Youn Yuh-jung) a room is out of bounds for anyone walking in. It commands an air of mystery and becomes the film’s MacGuffin, symbolizing Chan-sil’s doubts and fears about her past and future. Her colleagues—now ex-colleagues—complain about the weird shape of the house and the landlady’s unpleasantness. Even a coffee shop is called 221B Baker Street. She becomes the cleaning lady for an actress friend, Sophie (Yoon Seung-ah), who calls her sister, the one friend she’s made along the way. As if to further Chan-sil’s worries, director Cho-hee structures her exteriors to create a visual of discomfiture. A particular shot as she’s walking to Sophie’s home shows a maze-like lobby which creates a sense of walking into a room of mirrors within a mobius strip.
When Sophie introduces Chan-sil to her French teacher and short filmmaker Kim Yeong (Bae Yoo-ram), Cho-hee lets loose an electric spark when their hands come in contact. The film is fantastical in the most delightful ways. On one hand, it is dimly lit throughout, the interiors always dark, the exteriors overcast and often in twilight to reflect Chan-sil’s mental state. It also has ghosts and hallucinations. Chan-sil’s crisis leads her to hallucinate to the point of imagining a pixie Leslie Cheung, the Hong Kong actor and singer, played by a sprightly Kim Young-min. Lucky Chan-sil’s central thesis is to highlight a midlife mental health issue but with a comic playful touch.
Almost every character ends up offering therapy in some form to Chan-sil. If you look at the film in this light, the film begins with death and Chan-sil encountering a series of ghosts. Along with Leslie Cheung, Chan-sil’s annoyance with Sophie’s immaturity and her advice to her increasingly become self-reflexive. It could be Chan-sil telling herself what to do. Her relationship with the landlady improves as they help each other around the house, and she becomes the “grandmother”.
A throwaway exchange between Chan-sil and Yeong makes us suspect a more sinister plot at work. Maybe everyone in the film is from Chan-sil’s past, present and future. Her fascination with cinema (and Leslie Cheung) appears in the form of VHS tapes. A letter from her parents is mistakenly read by the grandmother and they form a connection. She gives a hand in the grandmother’s writing lessons (a poem writing homework) and Cho-hee cuts to Yeong teaching Sophie a French poem. The background music stops with the cutting of a ribbon in the film.
Despite the overflowing love for cinema and using it as a prism to look at Chan-sil’s larger purpose, the film never takes itself too seriously. Its wry humour always lands, the references and tributes to Hong Sang-soo are all apparent and so is the parody. A scene looking for introspection zooms in on the characters and a poem mentioning “long gaze” zooms out. After the appearance of the super moon and even praying to it, it is a mere torchlight that lights up Chan-sil from the inside, hinting at an artificial form of enlightenment that she must contend with.