Microhabitat (So-gong-nyeo) (2017) [Fantasia 2018]

A young woman living paycheck to paycheck on a very tight budget finds herself in a hard place when she has to decide what to cut from her budget when her rent goes up by quite a bit. As she tries to find a way, she decides to abandon the tiny apartment and go couch surfing for a while. As things advance, her situation becomes more and more precarious.

Writer/director Jeon Go-woon takes this premise and puts together a story that is both sad and enlightening in its own way. Here the lead does make a few questionable decisions in her situation and about her priorities but her struggle is nonetheless very real and quite touching. The way the she takes takes her lead through the journey clearly shows how someone who is already struggling can easily fall into desperate times and even homelessness, something far too many around the world are at risk of every single day. The story here may be South Korea specific but it could be set in many other countries where the economy works for the rich but the poor just keep getting poorer. The way the subject is approached is non-judgmental and open-minded, showing the struggle straight on, allowing the lead to make her mistakes and take her decisions. The stories around her with others characters relating to herself and what happens to them also shows a variety of struggles in today’s society, particularly the local society seen in the film.

In the lead of Mi-so, actress Esom is heartbreaking to watch. She goes through the film with small nuances in her performance, showing minimal emotions and showing that a character like hers, someone who has had to face and still faces financial and housing struggles, someone who has had to become hardened just to survive. This doesn’t mean she is not giving or relatable, she gives her character a persona that keeps the viewer involved even when even she seems to have given up. She is someone to watch closely in this performance and others to see how subtle, subdued emotions can work wonders on film at times when the subject and tone of the film is right. Playing the people around her including Mi-so’s boyfriend Jae-hong Ahn and her friends she stays with for short periods of time, seeing their personal struggles from the inside, are Duk-moon Choi, Jin-an Kang, and Sung-wook Lee. All of them give decent to great performances, some becoming grating but that is how their characters are to show certain personality types and how different people react to the same situation.

Microhabitat uses images to create a sort of intimacy, with Mi-so being in most of the scenes and slowly removing herself from society as her situation evolves. The color schemes chosen for the film are deliberate and work with the tone, giving everything a somber sadness that permeates yet doesn’t take over. There is hope throughout the film, an odd sort of hope that the visuals do not hinder. This hope of course doesn’t take center stage here, but it comes and goes and the images work with that, using not only deliberate color schemes but also very careful framing, which helps once again with the intimacy of the piece but also helps showcase the emotions and performances without putting them too much into the viewers’ faces.

Microhabitat is a touching study of how one woman can fall from having her own, albeit small and not great, place to becoming homeless from choices she has made and the fact that society is slowly pushing its poorest members into a situation they can no longer afford. Some of the choices made may seem odd and are definitely not ideal from a saving money perspective, but they show how the lead thinks, what she wants to do to at least survive mentally. The film is emotional in a slow build sort of way, giving the story time to develop, the viewer time to become invested, giving them something to think about that is something that is far more wide-reaching than some might think. This inner view of how homelessness can happen and how people around someone in need can exacerbate the issue without knowing or wanting to know is a gut-punch of a film once it ends. As it advances, emotions accumulate and culminate in the ending that not complete darkness, but shows a harsh reality that far too many have to live through.

Fantasia 2018 runs from July 12th to August 2nd, 2018.