Considering the gravity of the subject matter, Kang Sang-woo, the writer-director of the Korean drama A Silk Letter, has a pretty good sense of humour.
Early on in this deceptively slender short feature, the camera catches sight of a snail methodically dragging itself across the ground and pauses to note its slimy, incremental progress. As a commentary on the idea of “slow cinema,” this is an inspired visual joke. It’s also a confrontational gesture, a challenge to the viewer. It says: “You’re on my time.”
And the remarkable thing about A Silk Letter is how deftly and intelligently it plays with time. Sang-woo’s strategy is to compose what initially feel like frozen moments – a solitary walk or a lazy embrace – and then gradually let them melt away in accordance with his characters’ passions. These are heated indeed, as the movie is, among other things, a love story between two young men white-hot to each others’ touch.
Sungwoon (Sung Hojun) lives in Seoul in a small apartment that he shares with his teenaged, high-school dropout lover (Choi Jinhwan) and their cat, Louie, a fleeting figure. They may be living in Korea’s largest city, but huddled together on a mattress on the floor, they’re on their own private island. And as the movie opens, escape is very much on Sungwoon’s mind. He’s introduced in the middle of burning his draft card, in a brilliantly composed long shot that isolates him within an urban landscape. By rejecting mandatory military service, Sungwoon will become even more of a social outsider, and any succour his partner might provide him is tempered by the younger man’s clear inexperience and immaturity.
The first part of A Silk Letter observes both men in close quarters as they grapple with their feelings and the fallout of Sungwoon’s decision, and the vibe is potent, a mixture of furtive and erotic. The second part of the film is the real source of its power. Alone in the apartment, Sungwoon produces a notebook and beings to draft a silk letter, a confession modelled on a letter written by a 19th-century Korean Catholic martyr named Alexitus Hwang.
Based on the tone of the letter, it seems that Sungwoon is writing not for the history books but to convince himself that he’s actually doing the right thing. The fact that Sang-woo was actually imprisoned as a conscientious objector in 2011, a year after the film’s premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival, gives the film a personal and political edge that cuts through its lyrical surfaces. This is cinema as both protest and self-fulfilling prophecy, and if it’s made under the sign of that slow, diligent snail, it’s also ultimately as nimble as Louie, whose final cameo is framed quite provocatively as an act of freedom.