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CLEAN UP 호흡 Gives An Honest, Introspective Look Into The Repercussions of Trauma5 min read

19 July 2019 4 min read


CLEAN UP 호흡 Gives An Honest, Introspective Look Into The Repercussions of Trauma5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

After losing her son, Jung-ju goes through life working, drinking, and praying. When an ex-convict, Min-gu, finds a job in the same cleaning company as her, she is forced to confront a past that she wants to forget.

Director: Kwon Man-ki

Cast: Kim Dae-gun, Yoon Ji-hye

Year: 2018

Country: South Korea

Language: Korean

Run time: 101 minutes

The past is a nebulous thing. While seemingly cemented in history, it flickers and shifts with perspective and age — and, if not dealt with properly, looms over your present and chases into your future like a miasma lingering over a festering wound. 

This is Jung-ju’s (Yoon Ji-hye) life. After an incident that leaves her wrought with guilt and regret, she passes her time with detachment and isolation. She barely engages with her co-workers, rejects the notion of going on dates, drowns herself in alcohol and spends the rest of her time seeking penance by praying in church. This only changes at the arrival of Min-gu (Kim Dae-gun), an ex-convict who has just been released from prison. 

Min-gu is only 21, yet he holds a maturity that seems beyond his age and carries the heart of a childhood that has been robbed from him. While Jung-ju seems determined to avoid him initially, she eventually gives in to her own curiosity and begins to interact with him like she had never done with the other people who are present in her life. 

Kwon Man-ki’s debut feature is not simply a story about two individuals who have to face the ghosts of a shared past, but rather seems to be an introspection into human reaction to trauma. It is not a particularly emotional or evocative film, and nothing much happens throughout its one-plus hour runtime either; instead, Kwon chooses to follow the characters around in a more observational mode, and this emotional detachment from the narrative reflects the characters themselves, who opt to avoid and evade rather than confront their problems.

This isolation also presents itself in the thoughtful use of colour — or lack thereof. The film is doused in bleak tones, from Jung-ju’s dull-coloured wardrobe to the desaturation of the hues in their surrounding landscape. There is not much bright colour throughout, which is indicative of the rather repressed, grim state that is a constant in the characters’ lives. 

The absence of any particularly incisive drama in the narrative also gives us space, as viewers, to scrutinise and ruminate on the characters and their motivations. Neither of them are vocal about their thoughts or emotions, and even the final confrontation doesn’t draw out much emotion from Jung-ju. While this might make it difficult for us to understand the characters and their reactions, the gaps in the narrative are accurate to real life. 

No one is there to offer explicit explanations for our traumas or our reactions, and likewise the only answers we get as outsiders to their story are the conclusions that we have come to on our own. There are some areas where Jung-ju’s actions baffled me, and others that don’t seem to get proper closure; where she should let go, she seems to clutch on tighter, and when given the chance to properly express herself and atone, she once again seems to ignore and avoid. She spends her life scrubbing and cleaning others’ messes, but doesn’t spend the same effort on her own baggage. Instead, she tries to fill the gap in her life with Min-gu’s existence, and assumes the same position in his life as well.

However, as another character comments, “An empty space doesn’t mean you can just put someone there.”Just because they now have each other doesn’t mean that they have reconciled themselves with their trauma, or that they have let go of their pasts. Perhaps it means that they are holding on tighter, that they are now stuck together instead of being stuck alone. Or perhaps, on a more positive note, it means that they can now deal with their problems together and slowly begin to fill in the empty spaces with each other’s existence. 

Clean Up is not a simple tale about forgiveness and repentance — in fact, one might even argue that the film ends without a solid conclusion. Yet that is where the beauty in this film lies. It is thought-provoking and poignant, sombre yet hopeful; and ultimately, it is, very simply, a portrait of the human journey. 

You can catch the film at Filmgarde here. Meanwhile, here is the trailer for Clean Up:

The Contemporary Asian Cinema Series (CAC) is a new cinematic initiative by Singapore Film Society and Filmgarde Cineplexes to celebrate Asian films in all its diversity and to present critically acclaimed works from emerging and established film directors from the region.

Starting from July 2019, CAC is a fixed monthly programme that bridges the professional film industry with film goers and aficionados through thoughtfully curated film screenings paired with educational and audience engagement elements, such as talks by film critics and programmers, as well as post-screening discussions with the filmmakers and cast, with the aim of building film interest and literacy. 

somehow both a dreamer and a realist at once; more articulate in the written word
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