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Take Care Of My Cat

     In some American cities, the test for hipness among film critics is intricate knowledge of contemporary Asian cinema, going way beyond Wong Kar-Wai, Ang Lee, John Woo, and Zhang Yimou, all western favorites, to a host of emerging, esoteric directors in Thailand, Taiwan, the Phillipines, and South Korea. Though there is one-upmanship in this touting of filmmakers whom nobody in American knows, these snobby critics have a point. While many European countries seem to have lost their energy, Asia is definitely on the move. A stellar example is the new Korean film, Take Care of My Cat, a deep, humanist tale of the interlocking lives of five post-high school girls, made by talented Jae-eun Jeong, among South Korea's few women directors.

     The girls, none of whom go to college, reside in the port city of Incheon, a commuter ride away from Seoul. Their soul-searching to locate meaning in what seems already a dead-end existence in a boring town becomes part of a fertile cinema tradition, from Fellini's I Vitteloni through American Graffiti and The Last Picture Show. Instead of Chekhov's Three Sisters, here are five chicks, expressing their longings by cel-phone.

     The brash leader of the gang, who gets her way due to her obstinate selfishness, is Hae-Joo (Yo-won Lee), the only one who works in Seoul and has her own mini-apartment there. She's the willfully modern one, choosing a life dedicated to new clothes, and being coldly cool. She's also got a real entry job in a brokerage firm. As the movie goes on, it becomes clear that she's never getting ahead at work. A high-school education is a glass ceiling, and she's bumping her head.

     The gang includes good-natured identical twins, Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo, with matching bangs and 1970s Cher-hair, satisfied with their lot. Not so, Tae-hee (South Korea's most expressive young actress, Doo-na Bae), who lives unhappily with her bland middle-class parents and toils for free-it's all family!-- in their spa. In her spare time, she hangs out with a fringe poet with cerebral palsy. She's one of two smothered artistic souls. The other is Ji-young (Ji-young Ok), who lives in sunken poverty with her decrepit grandparents, and dreams of a career in textile design, something she'll never afford.

     The film, almost plotless, moves among the five girls as they cope with a daily life which, though almost without melodramatic incident, is bringing the most sensitive of the them down, down. Meanwhile, the titular cat, actually a sweet, skinny kitten, is passed from girl to girl for safekeeping. The great feline hope.

(April, 2003)

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