The best film I’ve seen at the Sydney Film Festival is Clean Up by the young Kwon Man-ki. Clean Up was made as a graduation project under the auspices of the Korean Academy of Film Arts *. The film attracted attention at Busan last year where it shared top prize in the New Currents section. And let’s make clear this is not a film which shrieks student production. It’s a mature film, reminiscent in its dramatic intensity of the early Bertolucci if you want to place the film anywhere in context of meticulously controlled drama.
In brief the drama centres on a nearing middle aged woman, first seen being diagnosed with early onset menopause who works a couple of menial jobs, the main one being as cleaner who is part of a team that cleans everything from regular offices all the way through to homes where people have died or even been murdered. Joining the cleaning crew is a young man fresh out of prison, down on his luck, otherwise homeless who we learn early on was a child kidnapping victim of the woman and her then husband from a dozen years ago The snaky plot mostly involves the woman, her guilt and remorse and the awful fascination she develops for the young ex-prisoner.
The tale is told in a number of acts. You can see where each new sequence starts, where the relationship has changed, moved on. The development, the enlightenment, occurs in the female protagonist. From the start she’s wracked with guilt which she attempts to expiate by worshipping in a Christian Church. She gradually hears the tale of the young man who was kidnapped and then, orphaned fell into a life of petty crime. The guilt becomes even more of a burden. In the meantime her ex-husband is not handling the situation at all well.
It’s finely wrought, beautifully written and played by the two principals with absolute conviction. Every time I see something of this stature out of a film school I am further amazed that it has been done at all. It’s not often though. Probably the last one of equivalent standard was by another Korean, Jo Sung-hee, and his 2011 film End of Animal.
Note should also be made of the high quality Q&A conducted between the director and Australian film-maker Helen Grace following the show.
*The website of the Korean Academy of Film Arts has this information about its program. In 1984, the Korean Film Council established Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) as the cradle for highly trained and creative professionals. KAFA offers elite courses in film directing, animation, cinematography, and producing to a small number of select students. In 2006, we added the new Advanced Program to the curriculum, expanding the scope of practical education that brings students closer to the filmmaking scene and help them produce four feature films each year. Most of these films have been submitted to domestic and international film festivals and have won numerous awards and acclaim. Today, KAFA is South Korea’s leading film school with more than seven hundred graduates.
No more screenings. No Australian Distributor.