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Review of the film “Dolphin” (2023) directed by Bae Du-ri. Critique of the movie “Dolphin” (2023) helmed by Bae Du-ri.
Review of the film "Dolphin" (2023) directed by Bae Du-ri.

Critique of the movie "Dolphin" (2023) helmed by Bae Du-ri.

Review of the film “Dolphin” (2023) directed by Bae Du-ri. Critique of the movie “Dolphin” (2023) helmed by Bae Du-ri.

“Visit Seoul and meet your end, you jerk.”

Written, directed and edited by Bae Du-ri as a school project at the Korean Academy of Film Arts, “Dolphin” premiered last year at Jeonju and was released in Korean theaters this week.

The story follows Na-young, a 35-year-old reporter at a small-town newspaper. She has spent her whole life in this quiet town, primarily focused on caring for her mother, Jeong-ok, younger brother, Seong-woon, and her friends. Despite a difficult childhood, Na-young has found peace in her daily routines and the simple life in her hometown. However, everything shifts when her mother announces plans to sell their family home, her brother decides to move to Seoul, and a man named Hae-soo, who is her age, moves from Seoul to their town. Na-young struggles to adapt to these changes, until she discovers the sport of bowling.

Bae Du-ri directs a film that draws from personal experience, in a rather unusual coming-of-age story, since it focuses not on a teenager, but on a woman in her mid-30s. Without falling into the clutches of melodrama, as so frequently happens in Korean movies, she deals both with what causes people to be afraid of change, and how one can find relief from this type of agony. Regarding the first aspect, Na-young’s rather dramatic past as a kid is presented as the main source, which is actually revealed gradually, in timely moments within the narrative, with the director eloquently stating that, for her protagonist, life could have been much harder and the one she has now does look quite good for her. On the other hand, and while her mentality is somewhat justified in that fashion, the fact that she cannot cope with others moving on is a sign of immaturity, with the story focusing on how Na-young tries to overcome it.

In the movie, there is a unique element that revolves around bowling, which Bae thoroughly explores as an amateur sport. The bowling alley and its proprietor serve a similar function to that of bars and bartenders in cinema. This adds an interesting factor to the narrative, as Na-young finds comfort and a means of escape through this element, making it a standout feature in this indie drama.

The comments, however, do not stop in Na-young and her effort to cope with change. The concept of the blended family is also central to the story, as much as the way people in small communities react to “outsiders” and the reasons the population of young adults in such areas is diminishing. That the characters of the movie mirror these comments is a testament to the quality of the writing, since Bae manages to both make her audience empathize with them and creates a chemistry that results in a number of interesting comments.

The performance of the actors greatly contributes to the realism of the film. Kwon Yu-ri captures Na-young’s frustration perfectly, in both her calm moments and rare outbursts. Kil Hae-yeon also impresses as Jeong-ok, who expresses her anger more freely. Hyeon Woo-seok, playing Seong-woon, stands out as the most composed character despite his age. The culmination of the skilled acting and the protagonist’s repressed emotions is depicted in a memorable scene towards the end, when everyone’s feelings become uncontrollable.

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Kim Him-chan’s cinematography follows the realistic lines of the narrative, although the bowling parts are occasionally impressive, in a rather welcome change from the usual approach of Korean arthouse dramas, which is also found in the pace. That the movie lasts for 90 minutes is another rather welcome aspect that should be attributed to Bae’s editing, which results in an economical approach that does so by avoiding the usual melodramatic shenanigans.

“Dolphin” is a gem of a film, one of the rare Japanese indies that manages to stray away both from the melodrama and the “Hong Sang-soo recipe”, retaining both its entertainment and its contextual richness for the whole of its duration.