Within the expansive BIFAN 2023 program there is a section called "Korean Fantastic", a curated category exclusively dedicated to highlighting Korean films. Among the ten films featured this year, one that truly stood out was the debut work of director Ha Myung-mi, aptly titled Her Hobby. This poignant film follows the journey of Jungin (Jung Yi-seo), a resilient woman who returns to her rural village seeking refuge from an abusive ex-husband. In her childhood hometown, she encounters Hyejung (Kim Hye-na), an outsider friend who empowers her to reclaim her voice and embark on a path of self-discovery.
Her Hobby fearlessly delves into topics that remain somewhat taboo within South Korean society. The fact that Jungin is divorced sets her apart from her conservative community, sparking compelling commentary throughout the film. In particular, the poignant discussions with influential older women, who encourage Jungin to reconcile with her abusive husband, provide striking cultural relevance. The film boldly challenges traditional norms, shedding light on the complexities of societal expectations, resonating far beyond the just rural communities of South Korea.
One of the film's remarkable strengths lies in its excellent use of setting, particularly the rural landscapes of South Korea. In a refreshing departure from the bustling cities like Seoul, Her Hobby highlights the serene and breathtaking beauty of the countryside. Picnics amidst fields, tranquil fishing by the lake, and meditative moments in mountain streams serve as exquisite juxtapositions, emphasizing the inherent splendor of the land. However, this cinematic contrast also illuminates the ugly undercurrents within the community. Jungin faces harassment from an older man while foraging in the woods, while Hyejung endures unwanted advances from a delivery man at the lake. Through evocative cinematography and a delicate musical score, the film magnifies the dichotomy between the land's natural allure and the people who tarnish its harmony.
At its core, Her Hobby explores themes of self-discovery and self-worth, which some may perceive as overly westernized or individualistic. Jungin's return to her humble roots is driven by desperation, seeking solace within her childhood community. However, she encounters further pain and hardship, and it is only when a benevolent outsider enters her life that her transformation begins. The film beautifully captures Jungin's pursuit of personal fulfillment through a montage of engaging in various hobbies, hence the film's apt title. While this message is pivotal to Jungin's character, it also subtly examines the influence of Hyejung, who possesses a dubious past that is oftentimes morally questionable. This dynamic has the possibility of inviting criticism or justification of the potential negative impact of external influences on various Korean communities' culture.
Her Hobby undeniably emerged as the standout gem for me in the “Korean Fantastic” category at BIFAN. With its layered social commentary and heartfelt exploration of perspectives often overlooked by society, the film stood out by offering poignant insights into the lives of Korean women. Director Ha Myung-mi's debut work showcased a cinematic talent, leaving me eagerly anticipating her future work.