Romance Joe director Lee Kwung-kuk returns to the director’s chair with a another meta take on modern Korean life, only this time he’s interested in the nature of dreams vs reality. A Matter of Interpretation is, ironically, a little closer to Lee’s mentor Hong Sang-soo thanks to its repeated dream motifs but always stands at a slightly more abstracted angle than the comparatively more realistic Hong. Building on the promise of Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation further marks Lee out as a talent to watch in modern Korean cinema.
The film begins with a group of performers nervously waiting in a rather circus-like theatre before eventually deciding to cancel the performance because no tickets have been sold. Yeon-shin, the star actress, storms out and goes for a smoke in a nearby park. Her boyfriend eventually finds her and they talk about the film project Yeon-shin has just been bumped from in favour of a young pop idol. They break up and we time jump to the same bench some point later as Yeon-shin talks to a policeman who, it turns out, can also interpret dreams. Yeon-Shin has had a dream about attempting to commit suicide in an abandoned car only to find a man (who now has the face of Seo, the policeman) tied up in the car's boot.
The car itself ends up becoming a recurrent theme in the film, appearing in the dreams of multiple people and eventually in reality (maybe?) The policeman (who frequently pulls out a pocket watch and seems to be late for a very important date) interprets Yeon-shin’s dream as being about regret over rashly ending her relationship with her boyfriend and a mixture of guilt and worry that he quit his theatre job soon after and she hasn’t heard from him since. There are other repeated motifs such as the date 7th February circled on a calendar and, like Romance Joe, a pre-occupation with suicide, but A Matter of Interpretation proves an apt title for a film that’s so bound up with playful symbolism.
Also like Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation owes a lot to Lee’s mentor Hong Sang-soo. Like Hong, Lee has opted for a concentration of static camera shots with his subjects centrally framed like a conventional landscape photograph, albeit with the occasional creeping zoom. However, where Hong can be deliberately repetitious, Lee’s repeated motifs take on a different kind of playfulness - deliberately disorientating us with his mix of dream and reality to the point where we can’t really be sure which of the two is the “real” world. He’s also ported over his love of Alice in Wonderland (or this time Through the Looking Glass) which adds another surrealistic layer of whimsy to the film.
Ultimately, A Matter of Interpretation builds on the promise of Romance Joe to create something that feels much more well thought-out as well as much more affecting than Joe’s rather distant atmosphere. Much of this is thanks to Shin Dong-mi’s engaging performance (even more so than her winning turn as the coffee-waitress-cum-prostitute in Romance Joe) as the aging actress Yeon-shin, who's coming to regret some of her previous life choices and wondering how things might have been different. Whimsical is probably the best way to describe the film - it isn’t trying to be deep or profound so much as playfully thoughtful though its complex, interconnecting narrative symbolism is certainly likely to spur post-viewing debate. Less contrived and undoubtedly more fun than Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation marks a definite step up for director Lee Kwang-kuk and hints at even more meta tales of playful absurdity to come from this promising director.