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In the port city of Icheon, five female friends struggle to stay close while forging a life for themselves after high school. When one of the group, upwardly-mobile Hae-ju, moves to Seoul, the other girls deal with the loss in different ways. Feeling most rejected, shy Ji-yeong finds comfort in her new friendship with rebel Tae-hee. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
A perceptive coming of age film that avoids genre clichés
33-year old director Jae-eun Jeong's Take Care of my Cat is a perceptive coming of age film about five young Korean women trying to cope with the transition from high school to the adult world. Though a bit overlong and somewhat disjointed, it is an honest work that avoids genre clichés of sex, drugs, and even boyfriends. The film received a major award at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2002, but did not gain proper recognition until its DVD release this year. The title refers to a stray kitten, Tee tee, which is passed between the five girls and, as circumstances pull their lives apart, serves as a connection between them. Set in the City of Inchon, the bleak working-class environment establishes the mood of the film. According to the director, "Inchon is a city with many immigrants who came during the war or in the 70s during industrialization. It is a city full of wanderers that matched my characters who were outsiders."
The girls are in constant movement. Whirling through the city on subways and buses between work, clubs, and restaurants, we get a sense of their optimism and energy. Programmed to play entire melodies, their cellphones ring constantly as the girls coordinate their meetings and activities. In a clever gimmick, the director floats the text messages on the screen, in bus windows, and building walls. While it took me a while to get to know each character, each one has a strong and distinctive personality and, by the end, I felt a part of their lives. Hae-joo (Yo-won Lee) is the most outgoing and self confident but can be self-absorbed and insensitive to others. Through connections made by her affluent family, she lands a job as an assistant in a brokerage firm.
Although aware of the fact that she is a "low-wage" earner without much of a future at the company, she becomes fashion-conscious, carries a Louis Vuitton bag, and is acutely conscious of her appearance, spending money on laser surgery for her eyes. When she moves to Seoul to advance her career, it further strains the relationship with the others. Ji-young (Ji-young OK) is the opposite, a soft-spoken, sensitive young woman who lives in the poorest section of town with her grandparents in a run-down shack and cannot find a good job. She lacks the means to develop her considerable potential as a designer artist and is prone to moods of sadness and withdrawal. Tae-hee, in an outstanding performance by Doo-na Bae, is the glue that holds the friendships together by arranging meetings and bringing people together.
Tae-hee works for her father in his traditional "hot-rock" healing spa and, in her spare time, types for a poet afflicted with cerebral palsy who has developed strong feelings for her. Twins Bi-ryu (Eun-shil Lee) and Ohn-jo (Eun-joo Lee) play minor roles as they try to scrape together a living hawking jewelry on the street but their characters seem included more for comic relief than to further the plot. The girl's world seems strange to the older generations but the harsh reality of survival is constant, their ambitions often at odds with the male-dominated society. Ji-young wants to be a textile designer but is unable to go to school, Hae-joo wants a respectable job in the business world, and Tae-hee dreams of escaping from the suffocating restrictions of her family, though recognizing that running away is "so tacky".
She comes into open conflict with her family in a restaurant when her traditional father, rather than admitting he can't read the menu, orders the most popular dish for everyone. Tension arises between Hae-joo and Ji-young when Hae-joo invites everyone to go on a shopping spree even though she knows that Ji-young may feel left out. Tae-hee is the most supportive and is there for Ji-young when tragedy strikes, willing to do whatever is necessary to support her. Take Care of my Cat has no peak dramatic moments, no plot contrivances that propel us toward certain emotional responses, only the sad undercurrent of the inevitability of change in a confusing world. Backed by the moody electronic sound track by Kim Jin-cheol and Byul, I found Take Care of my Cat to be a moving experience. Jae-eun Jeong does not provide easy answers as to the direction the girls will take, but, by avoiding cynicism, she allows us to see their life in terms of possibility.
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