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Microhabitat
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by Jay Seaver

"You've got got have priorities, right?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Microhabitat" threatens to become a cutesy story of a woman who may not have the things society says she needs but is a free spirit, but then, maybe that's the game - get you liking someone who has decided cigarettes and whiskey are more important than shelter, see how capitalism and conformity are strangling her friends in other ways, and then set you up for a gut punch.

The lady in question is Miso (Esom), which means "smile" in Korean, a name that seems to fit her fairly well: Though she dropped out of college and cleans houses for little money, she's got a boyfriend she loves in Hansol (Ahn Jae-hong), though his webtoon hasn't taken off and he lives in male-only dormitory housing, does her job well, and budgets her money well enough to afford medicine, cigarettes, and a good whiskey every couple days. At least until 2014 becomes 2015 and not only does her landlord bump her rent, but the tax on tobacco skyrockets. She looks at her budget and decides that it's rent that is the thing she can sacrifice, hoping to stay with friends until she can find a cheaper place. She sets out to find her five best friends from school - Mun-yeong (Kang Jin-ah), who has taken to replacing a meal with a glucose drip; Jung Hyun-jun (Kim Gook-hee), a stressed-out housewife; Han Dae-yong (Lee Sung-wook-i), whose recent marriage has already collapsed; Kim Roki (Choi Deok-moon), whose parents are <I>delighted</I> at the idea of a young woman moving in; and Choi Jung-mi (Kim Jae-hwa), who has married well even if she's feeling kind of ambivalent about motherhood - but there's always something.

It's expensive to be poor, and not just in relative terms, and that can sometimes go double for South Korea, where monthly rents can be fairly low but where even the less-than-appealing places Miso investigates require a fairly hefty deposit, which really does a number on mobility. Folks like Miso who have limited fallback options tend to be hurt the most, especially when the squeeze starts to get put on the things that give them some small pleasure like cigarettes. Filmmaker Jeon Go-woon isn't giving an obvious lecture on this state of affairs, but she does well to illustrate it in small ways, always mentioning the cost of things (with the subtitles translating it into American dollar values) so viewers can see proportions and do the math along with Miso.

That's an effective tool, especially paired with Esom's performance as Miso, who never loses sympathy even when her priorities seem out of whack. Esom is a model, which means it is often a surprise to see how little of her there is underneath all the layers one needs during a Seoul winter, but she invests Miso with a likable modesty that never slips, although she never seems blank or unreactive in the face of strangeness. It's instructive to watch her engaging in her vices, because it shows the audience how she neither treats them as a burden nor as something impossibly wonderful - she does what gives her pleasure without hurting others (indeed, helping when she can), and this is why she often seems like the sensible one throughout, conventional wisdom aside.

Her drifting through others' lives gives Jeon free reign to create an interesting group of eccentrics, and she and her cast do great there. The film is packed with entertaining performances, with Kang Jin-ah setting a high standard in terms of just what sort of strangeness might follow, with Kim Gook-hee and Lee Sung-wook-i delivering pathos, while Choi Deok-moon is joined by Lee Yong-nyeo and Park Yeong-i in the segment that maybe has the most jokes but also takes the strangest turn. Much of the film is darkly funny but still cheerful because of Miso's good nature and intentions, getting the audience in just the right space for the final act.

There's a spot where the film seems like it could end with a simple and powerful kick, but it keeps going, and those last few minutes highlight how in many ways, homelessness is a symptom of a bigger problem - that it may be hard and sad to recognize that sometimes addiction can pull a person down, disconnection is often a bigger problem. It's easy to allow someone like Miso fall off one's radar, even though she's always been generous and helpful when someone else needed it. She makes bad decisions, and there's not much nobility in the fact that they are her decisions, but people let each other make bad decisions, and that's a bigger issue.

It's a soft, but discomfiting ending, one that lets the movie thread a lot of needles and reveal itself as more ambitious than it initially appears.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32362&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/15/18 01:03:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Go-woon Jeon

Written by
  Go-woon Jeon

Cast
  Esom
  Jae-hong Ahn
  Jin-ah Kang
  Gook-hee Kim
  Sung-wook-I Lee
  Deok-moon Choi



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