A man arrives in a ruined hotel in a small Korean town at night asking for a place to sleep. The building's one inhabitant, its female proprietor, tells him that the place is closed for repairs. They proceed to discuss the man's vague childhood memories - he thinks this town is the one of his idyllic childhood, though he cannot know for sure because the town has disappeared and an industrial complex has gone up in its place. His search for the images of his memory takes him across the vast industrial complex and encounters with people who may or may not be merely manifestations of his past life. Is the man dead? Throughout the film he is referred to as a ghost or shadow. Is it all some sort of hallucination? He claims to have spent 20 years in a mental asylum due to drugs.
Bae's followup to Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? confirms that he is, after only two films, one of the most unique voices in contemporary cinema (he wrote, edited, produced, shot, and directed both films himself). Not quite as astonishing as his debut, The People in White is nonetheless an incredible accomplishment. It's a philosophical inquiry into the nature of time and memory: alternately riddling, profound, haunting and frequently quite dull. Not the sort of film you can say you "enjoyed" but the sort that lingers in the mind long after it is finished, The People in White is very much reminiscent of Tarkovsky: bleak settings, muted color scheme, obscure images and dialogues, and very slow tracking shots. But in the end the film is Bae's, his philosophical questions are proposed from a Buddhist standpoint as opposed to a Christian one, his images and ideas taken from Korean history and myth. The People in White is the type of film where two-thirds of the audience have walked out by the halfway point, most of those who do stay end up asking themselves "why the hell did I sit through that?" and a few leave completely amazed. An achievement.
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