Review by Sean Boelman
A film has a lot to live up to by taking a name so closely identified with a cinematic classic such as Vertigo, yet Jeon Gye-soo’s romantic drama (unrelated to Hitchcock’s thriller) took that tremendous risk. And while there are definitely some interesting ideas in play here, the narrative is simply too stagnant for it to be particularly stirring.
The movie follows a woman working in a high-rise office who, dissatisfied with her increasingly mundane life and her secret relationship with a popular co-worker, one day forming an obsession with a window cleaner perched outside her building. Jeon should be given props for not letting his film fall victim to many of the traps of the traditional love triangle, but it still feels like something is desperately missing.
At nearly two hours in length, the movie does run a bit long. Perhaps in an effort to communicate to the audience the protagonist’s frustrations with her increasingly dull life, the film drones on with interaction after interaction that are obviously building somewhere, but at such a slow pace that viewers will likely check out after a while.
What does unite Jeon’s romance with the iconic noir of the same name is its exploration of obsession. However, the themes here are much more subtle. Like Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie, Chun Woo-hee’s Seo-young finds herself drawn to the disorder of a forbidden love and finds herself falling down a tumultuous path as a result, albeit one that is less literal.
That said, the movie fails to develop the protagonist’s solo arc. In a film that is supposed to be about overcoming anxieties, Seo-young’s transformation is a lot more clearly-defined than one would expect in the real world. And unless the viewer is too bored with their uneventful existence, it may be hard to identify with the character’s growth.
Still, there is a lot of power in the performances, largely because of the physical barrier that separates the two leads for most of the film Chun and her co-star Jeong Jae-kwang have excellent chemistry together, showing their spark through nuanced expressions rather than the dialogue that defines most romances.
There is also a lot of detail put into the movie’s visual and aural execution. The sound design here is phenomenal, creating some interesting effects that make up for some of the lack of characterization. And the cinematography is spellbinding, featuring shots that are gorgeous to look at (and don’t distract from the story because of the minimal use of dialogue).
Jeon Gye-soo’s Vertigo has a certain restrained beauty to it, though a meandering narrative doesn’t lend itself to a particularly cinematic romance. Still, the filmmaker’s unique approach to the genre is one that is at the very least intriguing.
Vertigo screened as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which ran August 20-September 2.